The poem is a tour de force – a simple and hugely atmospheric vignette depicting an incident in the life of a minority Catholic farming family in a Protestant-ruled province called Northern Ireland. What we know about the principal actors renders it unmistakably autobiographical – fly-on-the-wall boy Heaney senses his father might be attempting to deceive authority but gives him the benefit of the doubt.
Heaney provides the ingredients of a compelling psychological drama: an atmosphere of threat; an attentive youngster; an interrogation; a father’s lie; a moral dilemma that tests the innocence of the listening boy; the threat receding. The ‘poet-film-director’ employs all the zooms, pans and slow-motions of cinematic technique.
The boy’s eye is the camera, his ear records the sounds.
The first two stanzas follow the child’s visual curiosity: he examines a visitor’s bicycle in close detail – a standard-model, robust and immaculately turned out, from its multiple protection of a minion of the law in inclement weather (rubber cowl … mud-splasher … mudguard) to its dynamo (spud). The boy notes tiny features (fat black handlegrips … pedal treads hanging).
A sense of threat is injected: the dynamo he is inspecting (out of use during daylight) is cocked back just as the firing lever of a revolver or the safety-catch of a ‘spud’ shaped grenade might be in menacing circumstances. The child’s ‘eye’ comes to rest on pedals that reveal the authority of the rider (the boot of the law).
The policeman has been admitted to the home and the child learns what he can from his peaked police hat (cap) –visible marks indicating that it is tightly fitting (line of pressure ran like a bevel) and that cycling a heavy bike is physically demanding (slightly sweating hair). Beyond that the constable remains an embodiment rather than a ‘face’.
The constable’s mission is revealed by his heavy ledger with its specific record of farm yields (tillage returns in acres, roods and perches); accurate figures (arithmetic) will be cross checked to establish the honesty of income-tax returns (fear).
Still visually preoccupied with the officer’s power the boy knows that a firearm is sheathed in the polished holster; his eye follows a slow-motion route from buttoned flap and braid cord to the weapon itself (revolver butt).
Half listening to the dialogue his ear suddenly pricks up … there is something not quite true in his father’s response.
Deliberate or accidental? Boy Heaney spells it out to himself in a rhetorical question (was there not a line of turnips where the seed ran out..?) but says nothing. Though ‘good’ the boy is not innocent: he can differentiates between ‘truth’ and ‘fib’ (assumed small guilts) and has been taught what happens to liars who are found out (the black hole of the barracks).
As, in his slow, methodical way the officer prepare to leave, the boy has time to assess another symbol of enforcement (baton-case) and the almost medieval record of rural crops (domesday book) he is carrying.
The constable’s eyes pierce the boy’s soul (looked at me).
The final preparations completed (shadow bobbing) the officer remounts his bicycle. Heaney describes the melting of tension in a musical ‘morendo’ as the sound of the departing bicycle dwindled and died: ticked, ticked, ticked.
No word on the topic is exchanged between father and son.
- cowl: cover;
- mud-splasher and mudguard: double protection against water thrown up by a spinning bicycle wheel
- skirt: border;
- spud: informal word for potato; here something shaped like a potato;
- dynamo: device fitted to a bicycle that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy providing front and rear lights in darkness;
- cocked: tilted into on/off positions;
- boot of the law: Heaney reworks an old figurative idiom: the ‘long arm of the law’ was said to ‘tap criminals of the shoulder’ that is, arrest them. The use of ‘boot’ adds connotations of repression associated with the behaviour of some officers during this period;
- cap: uniform hat with peak;
- bevel: a line of differing surface depth;
- unstrap: release from a secure leather fastener
- ledger: account book 1400;
- tillage: till’ in the sense of ‘cultivate (land)’ is nearly as old as the Domesday Book; tillage refers to the extent of cultivated land and indirectly what is produced from it;
- return: response to a formal demand for information;
- acres, roods and perches: measures of calculation used before the advent, much later, of metric values, hectares and the like; measures of land used, perhaps, to reinforce what Heaney regards as a repressive medieval practice in modern times: acre:in late O.E. ‘the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plough in a day;rood:E. rod “pole,” varying from 6 to 8 yards; also “measure of land,” prop. 40 square (40 x 40) poles or perches; perch:‘unit of linear measurement”’ (5.5 yards), also ‘measuring rod, pole, bar’ used to measure this length (13c.); ‘measure of land equal to a square lineal perch’ (usually 160 to the acre);
- holster: holder for a firearm worn on a belt
- flap: length of leather that folds over the holster covering the gun’s butt
- braid cord: made up of interlaced strands;
- butt: hand held thicker end of a weapon;
- root crop: vegetables, beet turnips;
- mangold or mangelwurzel: root vegetable from beet family grown for animal fodder;
- marrow stem: a brassica vegetable from the kale family;
- turnip: round, fleshy root eaten as a vegetable;
- assume: acquire as one’s own;
- black hole: contemporary school history included horror tales of imprisonment such as the Black Hole of Calcutta; more modern readings might suggest those cosmic phenomena into which all matter is seen to disappear;
- Domesday book: the record in 1086 of a survey of England conducted as a census for taxation purposes and civil control;
- baton: truncheon;
- bob: move up and down;
- snap: close with a sudden sharp sound;
- carrier: framework mounted over the rear wheel of a bicycle for transporting small items;
- push off: provide initial momentum for balance;
- tick: regular, short sound;
- 9 quatrains; no rhyme scheme; lines of widely differing length from 4 to 9 syllables
- the piece’s sentence structure, use of punctuation and enjambed lines complement the drama: early observation uses 2 quatrains; reaction to the constable’s movements increases sentence turn-over; the interrogation sequence is short and snappy; the child’s discomfort changes the dynamic of the narrative; preparation for departure and moving away revert to the pace of poem’s outset;
- overall the policeman and bilabial plosive [b] become associated, the child with sibilant [s];sentence 1 is rich in plosives, bilabial [b] [p] then velar [k] [g]; stanza 3 introduces sibilant variant [s] [sh] [z]; its alveolar [l] recurs in stanza 4; stanza 5 has sat staring then reverts to percussive bilabial plosives [b] [p]; nasals [n] [m] echo through stanza 6; in 7: [s] assumed/ Small guilts and sat; imagined punishment reverts to hard [b] sounds, softening in 8 to alveolar [d]; the final stanza zooms into alveolar [t].
- the speaker is a child yet mature with insights into the use of language, metaphor and abstract ideas: the boot of the law; arithmetic and fear; small guilts;
- 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;