The Seed Cutters

A second ‘word-canvas’ depicts an age-old routine practised in Heaney’s Ulster farming community. He is perhaps inspired by a memory or a photo, even literally a calendar picture depicting rural practice.

Such groups of farm workers would be recognisable back in Breughel’s time: They seem hundreds of years away.

Heaney addresses the Flemish artist who painted rural scenes in 16c. Flanders; the artist would approve Heaney’s likeness, providing he, the poet, can find the words to do the scene justice: if I can get them true.

This uncomfortable activity is taking place at ground level: the labourers kneel and are exposed to the elements behind an ineffective wind-break. Scene-setting precedes identification: only in line 5 do we learn that They are the seed cutters.

Heaney takes up his fine paint-brush to pick out The tuck and frill of the leaf-sprout and the straw under which the tubers have been preserved.

Rural life is not hurried: with time to kill/ They are taking their time … Each sharp knife goes lazily. But there is method: agriculture has discovered that the yield is doubled by halving each root. A farmer’s son himself he recognises the split tubers with their milky gleam/ And, at the centre, a dark water-mark.

The speaker sighs for the old days: O calendar customs. Heaney’s composition is fit to exhibit: a composition with a top ground of spiky shrub, broom, Yellowing over them and at its foot a frieze of folk, unknown perhaps as individuals but familiar to the speaker who includes himself in the action: with all of us there, our anonymities.

  • To MP (p128) the use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ ‘betrays a longing to merge into the frieze in the knowledge that [in the current Troubles] anonymity and security are presently things of the past’;
  • NC (p55) feels that the 2 ‘painterly images of beneficent tranquillity, of home-keeping community’ place them outside the frame of North’;
  • MP (p128) comments on the use of sonnet form for a piece which started its life as an entry in a prose journal;
  • MP (p128) suggests that what might have begun to feel like celebration, ends in elegy;
  • Breughel: Flemish Renaissance painter of landscapes peasant scenes
  • In DOD (p174) commenting on his choice of Breughel Heaney said: ‘I always felt at home with his scenes/ Things looming large’ yet ‘pinned down in the smallest detail.
  • As a pair They stand in gentle contrast to the images of barbarity depicted elsewhere in the collection. MP (p126) sees the introductory pieces as moments, values, rituals wrested from the hard pervading darkness present in the rest of the collection.
  • Together the pair evoke: domestic and communal images of SH’s first home; human love; agricultural continuity. The style makes use of archaisms (NC55). Initially we witness: grace from sunlight; images of beneficent tranquillity of home-keeping and community (NC56); The two poems beautifully invoke the spirit of Mossbawn, transmuting the passionate, transitory world of childhood through the redemptive power of Art (MP p126).
  • sonnet; the volta after line 11 moves from pictorial detail to wider issues of solidarity in farming communities; 10 sentences (including the colon); repeated examples of enjambment;
  • lines based on 10 syllables; rhyme scheme abab cdcd efe xgg;
  • the assonant chains are strong: [i:] Seed/ seem/ kneel/leaf/ seed/ later gleam/ frieze; [ei] away/ windbreak/ breaking/ lazily[e] them/ get them/ hedge/ buried later centre/ Yellowing [ɪ] if/ in/ windbreak/ wind/ frill/ with/ kill/ milky/ with/ anonymities; [ai] I/ behind/ time/ knife/ [ɑː] half later sharp/ halving/ falls apart/ palm/ dark watermark [əʊ] know later goes/ O/ yellowing over; [uː] true/ through later root/ broom; 
  • alliterative effects are less marked: initial sibilants [s] nasal [n] and [m]; [w] in (4); alveolar plosive [t] in (5-8);
  • use of archaic, classical vocative: O calendar customs;
  • 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;

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