Heaney’s poem, based on the experiences of a childhood neighbour Ned Thompson, makes a powerful statement about Irish dispossession at the hands of anglo-scottish invaders and their descendants. The deteriorating circumstances he witnessed upon his return from his sabbatical year at Berkeley served only to confirm the seemingly unchanging fate of the Catholic minority.
Heaney portrays a male servant of indeterminate age, averse to his subservient status (boy) left with little choice but to turn the other cheek and bide his time in the hope of improved circumstances: wintering out/ the back-end of a bad year.
The young male goes about his menial routine (swinging a hurricane-lamp through some outhouse): an unskilled hand like countless others over the centuries (a jobber among shadows); working all hours and meeting demands that earn him a pittance and do nothing for his self-respect (Old work-whore); typical of his race past and present (slave- blood); one of the Irish who were accustomed to offering their services for hire on market days (who stepped fair-hills) as they sought to catch each bidder’s eye .
Heaney salutes the servant boy’s fortitude and silence (your patience / and your counsel), acknowledging him as an Irish antecedent walking paths that he, too, is following (how you draw me into/ your trail) as he beats a track from the hay yard (Your trail broken from haggard to stable), carrying armfuls of food for the animals in winter quarters (a straggle of fodder/ stiffened on snow), bearing the New Year’s good luck coals (first-footing) though strictly through the servants’ entrance, the back doors of petty ‘foreigners’ residing in properties once confiscated from the Irish (the little barons), making no apologies for his discontent (resentful/ and impenitent) handing over the farmyard bounty with cheerful face: carrying the warm eggs.
- boy: beyond the general sense of ‘young male’ the word originally suggested ’tied servant’, ‘commoner’ at the beck and call of a master e.g. stable-boy;
- wintering out: Heaney explained: ‘the title … came ( ) from memories of cattle in winter fields; Beasts standing under a hedge, plastered in wet, looking at you with big patient eyes, just taking what came until something else came along’ (DOD 121);
- back-end: agricultural reference to the late autumn/winter time of year when nothing grows;
- hurricane-lamp: an old fashioned portable lamp with a glass chimney that protected the flame in high winds;
- jobber: a casual non-skilled worker;
- work-whore: a ‘kenning’, descriptive pairing from Norse skaldic verse. Here a figurative composite for ‘servant with little dignity’;
- slave –blood: a ‘kenning’, here a figurative composite for a person prepared by history for servility;
- bidder: person making an offer for something on sale;
- counsel: based on the idiom ‘to keep one’s own counsel’, to keep one’s thoughts and intentions to oneself’; further tangential meaning: the advice of someone ‘in the know’;
- trail: sign or scent left behind by someone passing through;
- break trail: Heaney selects an outdoor expression that applies to winter conditions: ‘to walk the lead position, forcing one’s way through untrammelled snow’. Those who follow walk in the tracks made by the person who has already “broken” the trail;
- haggard: (Irish) hay or corn yard;
- straggle: untidy mass;
- fodder: dried hay and straw used as a winter feed for livestock;
- first-footing: (Scottish custom) being the first person to cross the threshold in the New Year;
- barons: lower order British nobles who received land from the sovereign; ‘Servant Boy’ looks back to another key period of Catholic ‘disaffection’: to the eighteenth century world of the Big Houses; by 1703, according to Froude, ‘nine-tenths of the land’ was occupied ‘by Protestants of English or Scottish extraction’ (MP97);
- resentful: feeling bitter about unfair treatment;
- impenitent: having no regret for one’s attitude;
- ‘Servant Boy’ was based on an old man called Ned Thompson who used to visit our house once or twice a week. A small, stooped ancient with a droop moustache (see also ‘Bog Oak)’… He walked with his hands behind his back, wore a cap and smoked a clay pipe … And from him I did hear talk about different masters, about sleeping in the loft, about the ones who fed him well and the ones who didn’t, about having to walk for miles home and back on a Sunday, and all that. He was at home in our kitchen, but he also belonged to the world of folk songs like ‘The Rocks of Bawn’ and ‘Magherafelt May Fair’’ (DOD130);
- Heaney responds to DOD’s question There’s another poem in the book which seems to be situated in that same shadowy area between folklore and politics … SH ‘The servant boy is, like the last mummer, an alter ego of sorts, He too is resentful and impenitent … But he also controls his anger, fits in, his tongue goes ‘whoring / among the civil tongues’. In a sense, he’s the kind of guy who can be a spokesman, can go on a BBC panel without wrecking the decorum of the studio. (DOD130)
- ‘The servant boy in the poem, however, is also meant as a portrait of minority consciousness, a minority artist’s consciousness even: ‘carrying the warm eggs’ is what a servant boy would have had to do in the morning, check the nests and bring in what the laying hens had laid; but it’s also an emblem of the human call to be more than just ‘resentful and impenitent’, even while injustices are being endured. In the poem, the servant boy … knew-the score, bore the brunt and bided his time ‘(DOD130);
- Commenting on the non-sectarian attitudes of his family and good relations with neighbours of both persuasions when he was a youngster Heaney indicated that the Servant Boy represented something minority Catholics came up against: ‘At the same time, you resented the overall shape of things because you also knew that the Orange arches erected in the villages and at various crossroads were what the Romans might have recognized as a form of jugum or yoke, and when you went under the arches you went sub jugum, you were being subjugated, being taught who was boss, being reminded that the old slogan, ‘a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’, now had real constitutional force. So, ‘resentful and impenitent, you carried the warm eggs of your smile to your marching neighbour and walked tall in defiance of the jugum’ (DOD133);
- ‘Servant Boy’ … gives resentment its voice. The boy – servant … to one of the Big Houses of the Protestant Ascendancy … ends ‘resentful/and impenitent’, a servant entirely without servility carrying those eggs which may be ‘warm’ with the possibility of a different kind of future … It is the point of these poems, however, that they also imply Heaney’s own kinship, as a poet, with the representative figures. … in the central stanza of ‘Servant Boy’, poet and character almost merge at the centre of their respective trails – the boy’s wintering journey, the poet’s written script’ (NC32);
- ‘In the second verse Heaney employs an ironic, stylistic strategy which will recur frequently in Wintering Out and North. he uses Anglo-Saxon kennings – ‘work-whore, slave-/ blood’ – against the English, who regarded (and, some would argue, still regard) the Irish as barbarous savages incapable of self-imposed ‘discipline’ and ‘control’. In fact the predominant Irish response to colonisation was to work hard, and to keep ‘patience’ and ‘counsel’, attitudes which Heaney’s parents fostered in him. … These final images, the fodder and the eggs, stress the nourishing power of Gaelic culture, its resilience and fertility, positive qualities, which Heaney and the Catholic community will require to see through the latest winter’ (ibid);
5 quatrains in 3 sentences; varied line length between 4-7 syllables; unrhymed;
line length, copious use of enjambment and sparse punctuation provide the framework for oral delivery;
third person described: an anonymous shadowy figure symptomatic of Irishmen dispossessed by foreign masters; addressed in the second person: ‘your’;
mainly continuous present/ present tense;
use of kennings: ‘work-whore’; ‘slave blood’;
hyphenated fair-hills removes any ambiguity;
vocabulary of suppression from ‘jobber’ to ‘back doors’; of rising above it despite all; native Irishman presented as a bringer of good: ‘first-footing’, ‘warm eggs’;
zeugma permits economy of words: kept patience (and kept his own) counsel;
repetition of ‘trail’ establishes contact between a poet and his past, identifies common ground and in the nicest sense ‘common smell’
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: ten 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.
alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first lines of, for example, bring together bilabial plosives, the spitting [b] of an angry individual and voiceless [p,] softened by sibilant [s];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.