The Baler

‘Against the cyclical, seasonal processes there is apprehension that our partaking in them is limited’ says Nick Laird.

The solid, repetitive sound of a vital piece of agricultural machinery delivering its annual farming bounty unearths deeper feelings in Heaney for whom a sense of mortality has crept in: about being and dying; about self; about a specific friend in memoriam.

Lying in his convalescent bed Heaney has been aware of a constant (all day ongoing) background thud (clunk) familiar to him (baler) as unexciting as the heartbeat (cardiac-dull) and unappreciated as vital (taken for granted). 

The after effect of stroke has held him in a semi-conscious state all day (evening before I came to); full consciousness restores fond memory (hearing and missing) of the farming calendar event of summer’s richest hours.

He knows the routines by heart: the intense labour (fork-lifted) , the perspiration (sweated through),  the after-burn of feeling within a whisker of perfection (nearly rewarded enough) at the sound of increased engine rhythms (race) of feverish hurry (giddied up tractor last-lapping) before nightfall puts paid to the process.

The sense-data richness of sight and sound (woodpigeons sued) , the mission-accomplished satisfaction (thirty gleaned acres) , the sheer physical pleasure of being (inhaling the cool) in a land of plenty (dusk Eldorado) amidst its bounty (mighty cylindrical bales) … all these factors have led Heaney to another, deeper understanding that in a sense he now shares: the feelings and responses of a man who knew his life would soon be over – ‘live’ memory of Derek Hill, already wheel-chair-bound (last time he sat at our table) unable to face the prospect of the sun going down for perhaps the last time and begging please to be put with his back to the window.

  • clunk: dull sound with little resonance
  • baler: machine that compresses hay into bales, rectangular standard size or cylindrical;
  • cardiac; relating to the heart;
  • come to: awaken, recover consciousness;
  • fork-lifted: fed into the baler manually using pitchforks;
  • giddy-up: sound made to spur a horse, addressed now to a tractor;
  • race: increased rhythm;
  • sue: coo soothingly:
  • acre: pre decimal land unit replaced by hectare (0.4 its area);
  • gleaned: harvested;
  • elderado: legendary concept of Eldorado (‘the golden one’) is said to have motivated the invasion of South America by conquistadores in search of gold. In addition to reflecting the rich colour of dried straw the term comes to describe the ‘perfect’ place, a sort of Rock-Candy-Mountain in the Burl Ives sense;
  • Derek Hill was an English painter and friend of Heaney’s; Nick Laird reports that the artist who lived at St Colomb’s Rectory near Churchill in Co.Donegal received a visit from Greta Garbo that became the subject of Frank McGuinness’s play Greta Garbo Came to Donegal. (The Telegraph of April 5, 2011)
  • There it is: the fluidity of memory structured by a focused and appropriate language … Anyone who has stood in a field with the baler working away will recognise the “cardiac-dull” rhythm, the “sweated-through” hours and the tractor “last-lapping” the field before the daylight failsThomas McCarthy in The Irish Examiner September 3, 2010
  • This is a psychic landscape we’re in, where the machinery taken for granted is the heart (“cardiac-dull”) and where even the last lap (of glory?) around the field after the hay’s in is only “nearly” reward enough. It brings to mind Frost’s triplet from “Provide, Provide”: “No memory of having starred / Atones for later disregard, / Or keeps the end from being hard.”Nick Laird in The Telegraph of April 5, 2011
  • The noise of the baler eventually draws Heaney to ‘summer’s richest hours’ where he ‘stood inhaling the cool/In a dusk eldorado/Of mighty cylindrical bales’. He might have left the poem here, redemptive, uplifting, but he is reminded of an elderly painter visiting his house who could no longer bear to watch the sun go down, ‘asking please to be put with his back to the window’. This melancholy afterthought gives the poem a magnificently restrained force. Adam O’Riordan in The Telegraph of April13th, 2011
  • 8 tercets of free verse; 6 tercets focussed on haymaking; 2 devoted to the deeper elegiac association;
  • vocabulary of consciousness and being physically alive is woven into the haymaking section as a constant reminder of Heaney’s own frailty hearing; sweated; inhaling;
  • tractors replaced horses in the fields. To spur his horse the farmer might call ‘Giddy-up!’; Heaney adapts this and adds motor-racing vocabulary (last-lapping) to describe the acceleration required to benefit from every last glimmer of daylight during harvesting;
  • The pigeons sue, coo soothingly; the word echoes the pigeon’s call;
  • lexical look-alikes that sound differently: through/ enough;
  • Heaney is at one with Hill’s feelings in describing what death deprives us of.

  • 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: twelve 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;

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment