Heaney expresses his respect and love for his father, explores his own place in the family line and, in observing the toll that time takes on Man, sets out a paradox that is evident to him twenty years on.

The poet paints the rural portrait of a strong, silent father from twenty years before: an impressive sight then, a tall-ship (shoulders like a full sail strung); a man at work in the fields, in full control of plough and horses (between the shafts and the furrow). In short, to his admiring son, he is a hero (expert) adept at positioning the plough’s wing and bright steel-pointed sock so as to produce the perfect sod rolled over without breaking, controlling his sweating team with minimum effort; assessing his task with unerring skill (Mapping the furrow exactly). 

Then Heaney was the child who, clumsy in comparison, dogged his father’s heels (stumbled in his hob-nailed wake/Fell sometimes); he was a pest benefitting from his father’s strength and love, riding on his back/ Dipping and rising to his plod. 

At that moment Heaney might have dreamt of following in his footsteps (grow up and plough/..close one eye, stiffen my arm), yet learned from toddling In his broad shadow round the farm, a persistent nuisance, tripping, falling, yapping always that the farming life was not for him. 

Irony of ironies: the time–line that was to lead Heaney in the direction of poetry took its toll on his father, ageing him and reversing the situation: today/ It is my father who keeps stumbling / Behind me, and will not go away.

  • follower: someone following, both in space and generation by generation:
  • horse-plough: old-style plough drawn by horses;
  • globed: describing the curve of his shoulders;
  • strung: resembling a sail raised to the yardarm;
  • strained: exerted themselves;
  • furrow: trench formed by the plough;
  • click: utter short wordless sounds;
  • sock: part of the share that cuts the earth into sods;
  • wing: part of the plough that deflects the sod;
  • headrig: part of the field left untouched so that the plough can be turned round;
  • pluck: pull and let go quickly;
  • rein: straps used to guide or check a horse;
  • angled: moved to create a different angle;
  • stumble: lose ones balance, almost fall;
  • hob-nailed: referring to heavy boots reinforced with nails;
  • plod: slow, heavy walk;
  • nuisance: annoying person;
  • trip: stumble, almost fall;
  • yap: talk continually and annoyingly;


  • elegiac in tone ultimately generating an emotional response to the changes wrought by the human condition; the final two and a half lines place the deeper message in emphatic position and provide moving testimony to the effect time has had on a father now past his best;
  • Heaney provides further reflections on his father’s skill with animals (DOD58)
  • record of a changing relationship; the hero of yesteryear becomes tomorrow’s encumbrance (MP64);
  • the poem allows an emotion of distress to cloud … primary affiliations and allegiances (NC10);
  • ‘stumbling’ can be applied both to father (age) and father/son relationships ;
  • talking about Kavanagh in ‘From Monaghan to the Grand Canal’ Heaney refers to ‘the penalty of consciousness, the unease generated when a milieu becomes material’
  • A poem of many themes: father/son relationship; family hierarchy; paternal skills that set an example to follow; changes in life-ambitions; the ageing process;
  • three part-rhymed stanzas portray the father; two and a half focus on the child;
  • compared to the weakling boy, the prowess and stature of the ‘father’ figure make him a titan; this is reflected in the choice of vocabulary: globed … broad shadow;
  • Heaney identifies parts of the horse-drawn-plough : wing ( a section that can be fitted to the plough such that its angle causes a cutting and upward loosening of the soil,); sock (part of the blade that slices through the soil); also headrig ( the point in the field where the team and plough execute a 180 degree turn);
  • 6 quatrains in each of which one of alternate lines rhymes; largely 8 syllable lines; sentence groupings (the shortest indefinite article + noun), the use of punctuation and enjambed lines define the ebb and flow of oral delivery;
  • present participles illustrate the actions of a youngster (tripping/ falling/ yapping) compared with loss of balance in an old man (stumbling);
  • internal echoes: [əʊ] shoulders/ globed; [ɒ] sock/ sod/ narrowed and angled at/ Mapping; follow/ shadow; [ɪ] wing fit;
  • pluck of reins: the gentle, sensitive action of a string player is all that Heaney Senior requires to control a team of horses;
  • hob-nailed wake: Heaney uses the footwear of the ploughman to describe the footprints he has left behind;
  • use of naval vocabulary: full-sail strung; Mapping; wake (the sea-furrow that a boat leaves behind as it churns forward resembles the plough-furrow);
  • the poet has an eye for detail noticing the polished sod: the sheen left by the ploughshare on the surfaces of newly sliced earth


  • 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 quartet, for example, weaves together wind-sounding labio-dental [f] and bilabial [w] with a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b], alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant variants [s][sh] and nasals [n] and [m];
  • 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

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