The Harvest Bow

A harvest bow, said Heaney in conversation with Christopher Bigsby, is a little piece of wheat that is plaited and turned into a bow and my father simply made it without thinking every year. When I moved to Wicklow, when I was in my thirties, I thought I would like to have one of those and I got him to make me one. I wore it in my lapel and I thought that is a bit folksy for me to be wearing. I felt I had every right to it but at the same time it was just a wee bit heritagy and so I took it and pinned it up on the dresser and wrote this poem about it (published in Writers in Conversation 5, 2013).

The harvest knot Heaney’s father fashioned for him (you plaited the harvest bow) wove (implicated) his paternal reticence (mellowed silence in you) into a cereal framework (wheat) that would never tarnish (not rust) and is enhanced in memory by Heaney’s penwork – assonant (brightens as it tightens) and alliterative (twist by twist) – as he weaves his verse into an emotional glowing crown (knowable corona) and not just something disposable (throwaway love-knot of straw).

From what was made to him that made it: the hands of a stick-carrying man at work (aged round ashplants) and for later support (cane sticks); hands used for delicate binding (lapped the spurs) as part of habitual (lifetime) involvement in a blood sport (game cocks); hands that retained the skills he had perfected (harked to their gift), harnessing his concentration (worked with fine intent) until he could plait a bow with his eyes closed (fingers moved somnambulant).

For Heaney just handling the object (tell and finger it like braille) conjures up (gleaning) a narrative of his father’s shy nature (the unsaid) through what the man has fabricated (the palpable).

Through the bow’s arched curves (spy into its golden loops) Heaney is transported back to childhood (see us), two figures side by side round Mossbawn farm (between the railway slopes) walking in the dusk (evening) of an insect-rich mid-Ulster meadow (long grass and midges), balmy (blue smoke straight up), with reminders of vegetable patches (old beds), farm machines left out (ploughs in hedges) and news of local sales (auction notice) for the community to note (on an outhouse wall).

The father would wear the ritual knot (harvest bow in your lapel), the son might have other intentions (fishing rod). He is suddenly nostalgic for his lost domain (homesick) and the boost of time remembered (big lift of these evenings) … the father who whirled his stick about (whacking the tips off weeds and bushes) a touch uncoordinatedly (out of time) and failed to startle any wild life (flushes nothing).

Tamniarn, where Mossbawn lay, (that original townland) its shyness (tongue-tied) woven into the bow that Patrick Heaney plaited (straw tied by your hand).

The poem’s coda  is sparked by a Yeatsian phrase (The end of art is peace) that correlates a poet’s intention, his work, the ups and downs of his lifetime, his father-son relationship, the Northern Irish Troubles. Heaney deems it an entirely suitable legend (motto) for the delicate bow (frail device) rediscovered where the poet had left it in Glanmore cottage (pinned up on our deal dresser).

Examining it closely for perhaps the final time he sees an animal trap (drawn snare) rendered harmless (slipped lately) by  some protective wheat divinity (spirit of the corn) that gave the bow its rich golden tint (burnished by its passage) and rekindled tender memory of the father who fashioned it as if only a moment before (still warm).

In An August Night of Seeing Things, 1991 Heaney will allude to his father’s dexterity dealing with intricate structures:  His hands were warm and small and knowledgeable. /When I saw them again last night, they were two ferrets / Playing all by themselves in a moonlit field.

  • harvest bow: a decorative knot of plaited straw celebrating a fruitful harvest; often twisted from stalks of wheat, braided, and hung on walls or lapels; here a conceit celebrating ties of love;
  • plait: interlace;
  • implicated: Latin implicere ‘entwine’, ‘entangle’ ‘weave in’; also notion on ‘convey truth into a fable’
  • mellow: become more easy going;
  • rust: discolour, tarnish, corrode;
  • knowable:
  • corona: circle of light, encircling glow
  • throwaway: disposable, expendable;
  • love-knot: thing created or carried to symbolise a bond of love;
  • ashplant: ash tree sapling fashioned into a walking stick;
  • cane stick: bamboo walking stick
  • lap: wrap in protective covering
  • game cock: rooster bred for fighting;
  • spurs: sharp bony protrusion at the rear of the leg behind claws:
  • hark to: unusual listen, possibly remember
  • gift: something taught;
  • intent: resolve, concentration;
  • somnambulant: allusion to sleepwalking;
  • braille: written form of language using raised dots that blind people read with their fingertips;
  • glean: gather with effort
  • unsaid: not expressed;
  • palpable: what can be perceived;
  • loop: curved shape that bends and crosses itself;
  • midge: minute flies that gather in swarms;
  • bed: plots of ground;
  • auction: public sale at which goods are sold to the highest bidder;
  • outhouse: shed, barn built close to a dwelling;
  • lapel: folded back section of a jacket that extends the collar down the garment;
  • lift: boost, reassurance;
  • out of time: off the beat, not in rhythm; also ‘from another time’ once upon a time;
  • flush: scare (game bird or animal);
  • townland: most basic land division in Ireland often unmarked on a map;
  • tongue tied: lost for words owing to shyness or embarrassment;
  • end: aim intent;
  • ‘The end of art is peace’ … that’s  a quoted statement … Yeats used it and I used Yeats using it. Obviously no matter how turbulent, apocalyptic, vehement or destructive art’s subject is or that which is contained with art, no matter how un­-peaceful the thing previous to art is–once it has been addressed and brought into a condition called art, it is, if not pacified, brought into equilibrium … the human spirit holds its own against its affront and immensity. To me that’s what the “end  of art is peace” means and understood in those terms, I still believe in it; Rand Brandes interview with SH published in salmagundi 1988;
  • motto: epigram, short pithy comment;
  • frail: fragile, delicate, easily damaged;
  • device: emblem, badge, trope, conceit;
  • dresser: solid period sideboard, chest of drawers;
  • drawn: primed; made ready;
  • snare: noosed trap for catching wildlife
  • slip: avoid by not triggering the trap
  • spirit: breath, unreal property;
  • burnish: brighten, polish; allusion to gold colours; Settings xv of Seeing Things reprises as a noun the golden setting for a Mossbawn scene in which he watched his father foraging for a salted ham to give to a neighbour (Rembrandt-gleam and burnish)

MP (171 +) Of all the portraits of Patrick Heaney, the one provided in ‘The Harvest Bow’ is perhaps the most affectionate. The attributes depicted in earlier poems again appear – his physical vigour and dexterity, his strong sense of purpose, his difficulty in communicating his feelings … The particular scene he settles on conveys both closeness and distance within the father-and-son relationship. Silence divides and joins them. They are separated by

the break between stanza three and four, “You with a harvest bow in your lapel/ Me with the fishing rod’ and yet connected by enjambment, … within the bow’s  ‘golden loops’ are a luminosity, a warmth that will endure. From the twists in the bow the reader gleans not only details from a private history, however, for within the ‘throwaway love-knot of straw’ resides the spirit of a lost communal past. The relic belongs, like the ashplant, to an age of innocence, before sectarian tribalism and the strangers’ intervention destroyed the shape of the year. Heaney’s celebration of a late summer rural ritual needs to be seen in the context of contemporary Northern irish urban history. Each year since 1968 summer in the North has not merely signified the marching season, but a time when the violence in Belfast and Derry can be expected to reap its ugliest harvest.

Heaney portrays his father Patrick under the following titles: Death of Naturalist 1966  Digging; North 1975 A Constable Calls; Field Work 1979 The Harvest Bow; Station  Island 1984 Making Strange; Seeing Things 1991 Man and Boy, Seeing Things, The Ash Plant, Settings xv, Crossings xvii, Crossings xxxii, Crossings xxxiii; Spirit Level 1996 The Strand, The Errand, A Call; Human Chain 2010 Album, Uncoupled, The Butts, Lick the Pencil.

  • 5 sextets (S) in 3 sentences (including use of colons and dash);
  • S1 spells out the structure of the bow, mimics the dexterity of movement; dwells on as frailty that is an emotional strength not to be discarded; unusual use of Latin verb that allows personal feelings in; ’mellowed silence’ adjective speaks volumes, noun says nothing; irony of things that degrade – frail wheat emblem cannot not, solid metal does; durability prevails; S2 hands that speak a lifetime; a father’s working and recreational life revealed; Heaney derives hidden feelings from textures via the language of the blind metaphor; S3/4 the bow opens a binocular view into the past; Heaney frames  the tender feelings aroused within lyrical mid-Ulster surroundings; both Mossbawn farm and everyday Castledawson life picked out; contrast and inextricable link  between the boy who will not become a farmer and the father who cannot escape the role; subtle evocation of a slightly uncoordinated, shy figure reflected in his narrow townland world; repetition of ‘tied’ links man and task; S5 and italicised literary citation that expands the particular into Heaney’s own wider experience; fate of harvest bow revealed; metaphor of snare that was never triggered leave the love knot intact – no unpleasantness would get in the way of feelings; father and his memory live on ‘still warm’;
  • line length 8-11 syllables; distinct rhymes scheme aabbcc etc. often hinging on assonant or alliterative effects in final syllables; Heaney stressed that his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation and enjambment determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the piece is heavily enjambed –  each trigger of memory leads to a flow of consciousness;


  • 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: fourteen 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;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
  • the final lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] and front-of-mouth sounds approximant [l] labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and bi-labial plosives [p] [b]; alongside nasals [m] [n] and sibilant variations [s] [z] [sh] complete the package;

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