The Baler

The solid, repetitive sound of a vital piece of agricultural machinery unearths deeper feelings in a convalescent Heaney: about mortality; about self; about a specific friend in memoriam.

Heaney has hit upon something as familiar to him and as unquestioned as the heartbeat: the All day …Ongoing sound of the baler in operation; its clunk, like that of the heart we feel beating within us: cardiac-dull, So taken for granted. 

He is still feeling the effect of illness and emerging from sleep; it was evening before I came to and recognised the sounds of an annual event from the farming calendar as of annual tradition he experienced it in summer’s richest hours. Memories of days spent haymaking are triggered: the actions and the after effects: Fork-lifted, sweated through; a feeling close to perfection, nearly rewarded enough, animated by the feverish hurry before nightfall halts the process: the giddied up … tractor…/ Last-lapping a hayfield.

Beyond the visual memory, however, As woodpigeons sued at the edge/ Of thirty gleaned acres, beyond the physical pleasure as he stood inhaling the cool/ In a dusk Eldorado /Of mighty cylindrical bales, the current conspiracy of sound and sickness has brought Heaney to another, deeper understanding: the feelings and responses of a man who knew that he was dying. Derek Hill, already wheel-chair-bound, The last time he sat at our table, could not face being deprived by death of such natural beauty, and so as not to be reminded, asked please to be put/ With his back to the window.

    • A baler compresses hay into bales; modern baling produces huge wheel-shaped bales;
    • The legendary concept of Eldorado (‘the golden one’) is said to hane 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.
    • Derek Hill was an English painter who lived at St Colomb’s Rectory near Churchill in Donegal and whose visit from Greta Garbo was recently the subject of Frank McGuinness’s play Greta Garbo Came to Donegal.) Nick Laird in The Telegraph of April 5, 2011;
    • 8 tercets of free verse; 6 tercets focussed on haymaking; 2 devoted to the deeper 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.


    • 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 fails
      .  Thomas 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
    • Against the cyclical, seasonal processes there is apprehension that our partaking in them is limited. The knowledge that the sun is going down, for perhaps the last time, is too muchidem
    • 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
    • The most striking poems here are those which …carry established richness both to its extreme and bare opposite. “The Baler”, for instance, ends with a dying man who can no longer bear to watch a sunset. His stark words are all the more affecting for their contrast with a scene where “woodpigeons sue” (not quite coo, or soothe) around “a dusk eldorado/Of mighty cylindrical bales“. Jeremy Noel-Tod in The New Statesman