Heaney read Docker to the Belfast ‘Group’ led by Philip Hobsbaum in late 1963. He had been invited to join the group as an undergraduate and expose his poems to a small non-denominational assembly of poets.
The poem exposes the prejudice lurking behind the dour, uncompromising exterior of a dockworker in mid twentieth centure Belfast. To Heaney’s mind the man’s intimidating appearance embodies the sectarian mentality of favoured Protestant working men compared with the Catholic minority. Heaney is aware of employment policies that discriminated against Catholic dockers: shipbuilders Harland and Wolff for example aimed their recruitment policy towards Protestants.
This prophetic poem deals with uncompromising attitudes.
Non-communicative, the man sits silent and alone in the corner of a public bar staring at his drink. His face and features reflect the dockside environment in which he works: Cap … like a gantry’s crossbeam/ Cowling plated forehead and sledgehead jaw. His tight-shut mouth (Speech … clamped in the lips’ vice) is indicative of a man who speaks only when he has something to say, who neither challenges his convictions, nor will have them challenged.
The docker’s intractable Protestant mind-set emerges (That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic) affirming the threat of sectarian division long visible in the wider Ulster community. Heaney perceives a wry irony: The only Roman collar he tolerates/ Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter: the dark stout’s creamy head, despite its resemblance to a priest’ dog-collar, is acceptable to a hard-line Protestant drinking-man.
Heaney’ reflects on the docker’s mix of narrow but rigid views: Mosaic imperatives like rivets. The man’s unyielding Protestant beliefs and unwavering work patterns fuse: God is a foreman with certain definite views/ Who orders life in shifts of work and leisure; the factory horn that authorizes the end of his working day signals Resurrection.
The poet wagers that the docker’s spiritual intransigence (strong and blunt as a Celtic cross) applies to his domestic circumstances; he paints the man’s bullying presence in the home where, fuelled by alcohol, silence and an armchair will be his unchallengeable prerogatives and where, once alerted by the slammed door and smoker’s cough in the hall, his wife and children will (more than a simple future tense, ‘whether they like it or not’) have learnt to be quiet.
- the portrait of a manual worker in Belfast, hard, protestant and male, his feature moulded from his working environment; his uncompromising nature equally affects those close to him
- as regards Heaney’s elusive link between ‘horn’ and Resurrection: the biblical notion of the Second Coming of Christ and the re-awakening of the dead in Christ was supposedly accompanied by trumpet blast;
- docker: who works at loading and unloading ships in a port;
- cap: soft, flat hat with a peak;
- jut: stick out, project
- gantry: an overhead structure for lifting heavy weights supporting a travelling crane;
- crossbeam: transverse metal joist
- cowling: hood-shaped metal covers;
- plates: smooth rigid sheets of metal routinely used in ship-building;
- sledge: the heaviest manual hammer;
- clamped: fastened, bolted;
- vice: tool with movable jaws
- Roman: disparaging reference to Catholics;
- collar: band around the neck;
- sleek: smooth and glossy;
- pint: traditional British measure, requested in a public house;
- porter: a thick dark beer;
- mosaic: patterns of tiles used to make up pictures;set of small pieces that fit together like a jigsaw
- imperatives: unchallengeable convictions
- rivets: nails beaten into permanent position that hold metal plates together and seen from outside to form patterns;
- foreman: male supervisor, gang-master;
- certain: (pun) ‘a number of’ and ‘fixed’, ‘well established’;
- order: (pun) ‘prioritize’ and ‘direct’;
- shift: work-period; In industries that operated 24 hours each day, the workers were organised in 8-hour shifts;
- horn: loud klaxon announcing shift changes to the work force;
- blare: describing a loud harsh noise
- Resurrection: rising of Christ from the dead;
- blunt: stubby, rounded;
- Celtic cross: symbolic of the ancient Celtic way of thinking, a solid cross with a circle at its centre;
- slam: shut forcefully and noisily;
- MP asks to what extent the poem is born of wounded political and religious sensibilities rather than nostalgia (p.40);
- To MP the poem illustrates Heaney’s resentment towards a status-quo which still treated Catholics as conquered stock (ibid 55) and sees him as an aggravated young Catholic male; depicts mines and myths left over from previous conflicts (ibid 62)
- a satirical poem dating from 1963 … addresses itself to the sectarian present (ibid71). a man who personifies menace and prejudice (ibid 71); rueful … prophetic (ibid)
- 4 quatrains of mainly 10 syllable lines without formal rhyme; the single 7-syllable line stresses the silent repressed anger: Speech is clamped in the lips’ vice
- Heaney chooses the vocabulary of intolerance and latent violence; his only cheerful reference (smiles) applies to drink;
- to convey the idea of sociological cause and effect Heaney paints the surreal picture of a human face made up of dockside equipment; his use of shipbuilding imagery (rivets) is ideal in demonstrating the fixity of conviction (Mosaic imperatives);
- assonant effects: life in shifts; collar/ tolerates; tonight/ quiet; imperatives/ rivets;
- alliteration: plated/ speech/ clamped; pint of porter; Celtic/ cross/ clearly; sits/ strong;
- vocabulary of repressed hatred that will flare quickly: sledgehead jaw/ hammer/ ; bang home; slammed; blunt (as in heavy, blunt instrument with which damage is inflicted)
- mosaic imperatives: patterns of absolute conviction and priority;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
- the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;
- the first lines, for example, weave together a cluster of plosives (alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilants [s][z] and voiced alveolar fricative [dʒ];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ ang