A brief analysis of Seamus Heaney’s “Follower”

Often shared as one of Heaney’s seminal poems, Follower finds itself once again the study of subject for AQA GCSE English Literature. Perhaps why it has become such a classic might the emotional intensity of the poem. At A Level, I called this poet the “bogs and frogs guy” and it was only Follower and Digging that really resonated with me. Its accessibility and powerful commentary on the relationship between a child and their parent is the main focus of exploration.

At first glance, there’s a neatness to the form: Heaney has chosen a six-stanza, four-line structure. There is nothing rule-breaking or revolutionary about the four-line stanza; it is perhaps the most common of forms, the most traditional. It is the form of the ballad, the poetic story, and it is the form of lyric poetry. It is the form of hymns and the form of heroic poems. The ABAB rhyme scheme is evocative of the ballad, although not quite. The half-rhyme of ‘plough’ and ‘furrow’, of ‘eye’ and ‘exactly’ give it an off-kilter sound, something less harmonious and more dischordant. At a glance, it looks like a traditional poem; when reading, it becomes evident that there is something a little off.

The big question is why Heaney does this. Why choose such a traditional form? Why have half-rhyme rather than no rhyme or a full rhyme? In what ways is he using form and rhyme to say something about the content of the poem? These are questions we will revisit once we’ve explored the content.

The title is immediately ambiguous. At first we know that Heaney is the eponymous Follower, “I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake”, with the roles reversed by the end of the poem, “But today/it is my father who keeps stumbling behind me…” and so the title clues us in to the changing roles and the cyclical nature of the poem. He once followed his father, and now his father follows in his wake.

From the first line we see a statement: “My father worked with a horse plough” and we might wonder about the past tense – a state that is no more. There’s a formality too, to ‘father’, not ‘Dad’ or anything more intimate. You could read this with a sense of pride too, “My” father, that is especially evident when Heaney reveals his admiration for his father’s work: “An expert”. The wonderful simile on line two, “his shoulders globed like a full sail strung/between the shafts and the furrow” gives us a sense of his father’s size and power. Sails are not small things; one at ‘full sail’ would be filled out with wind, straining, and it adds a real sense of how strong and efficient his father is, cutting through the soil with the plough like a ship cutting through water. He makes it sound so very easy. A boat at full sail is smooth, fast and effortless. There is a roundness to full sails as they harness the wind’s power to propel themselves forward: we have the same idea here. He continues it when he mentions his father’s “broad shadow”.

The way that his father manages the horses also suggests effortlessness. One click and the horses are “straining”, and he moves them with “a single pluck of reins”. Heaney calls them “a sweating team,” which ambiguous and renders his father and the horses as moving in synchronicity as if they are one, his father sweating with effort as well as the horses. Driving the horses is not his father’s only skill, and Heaney creates an image of him, “mapping the furrow exactly” The linebreak prior to verse two, and then the caesura to follow, “An expert” makes his point perfectly. His father is an artist, “his eye/narrowed and angled at the ground”. Even the enjambement drives the lines, turning into the next just as his father “turned round/and back into the land. The lines are syllabically neat, with eight or nine syllables, and more often iambic tetrameter (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM) than not, which mimics exactly the neatness and efficiency, the ‘flow’ of his father’s work. Ironic indeed that Heaney says he cannot do what his father does with the plough, and yet he replicates it beautifully with words, syllables, metre, rhyme and rhythm. Technically, he does exactly what his father does, in a controlled, effortless ‘flow’.

Even though Heaney is conversant in the language of ploughing, the “furrow”, the “wing”, the “steel-pointed sock” and “the head-rig”, it is something he cannot do himself. Although he paints a picture of himself as a youngster, literally falling in the wake of his father, it works on a metaphorical level too: he could never seek to emulate his father.

Where the first three stanzas are dedicated to describing his father, the turn comes in stanza four, where the focus shifts from his father as the subject to “I” and my favourite bit of the poem, where his father picks him up and “sometimes he rode me on his back/dipping and rising to his plod.” which is a strange arrangement of the words. “He rode me” would imply his father still in control, the son being ridden, but in this case, even though the boy is sitting on his father’s back, he is certainly not in control. The role-reversal here, where the young boy assumes the mantle of the ploughman, mocks the later role-reversal. But it does something much more powerful: it shows us the closeness of the father and son, the way his father guides his son and helps him to ‘master’ the ploughed fields. Without needing to say so, we can see how Heaney’s father encourages him to step into his shoes, metaphorically. Not having the skill to follow in his father’s footsteps, nor the desire, is a theme of several of Heaney’s poems, most notably Digging. Here, we see the very gentle encouragement of a father trying to aid his son’s ability to follow in his footsteps. More than that, we feel Heaney’s desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. His tone is assured and factual when he says, “I wanted to grow up and plough,” and we see that this desire to mimic his father’s path in life is driven from Heaney’s own admiration of his father and his craft. When he writes, “All I ever did was follow” we see his disappointment. The very definition of following means “to come after”. You can never equal, rival or supercede the person you are following. It is a role that is filled with frustration and disappointment. There is another sense of the word, “follower”, as in someone who believes in something, we can be religious followers or even followers of fashion or a football team. A follower is a person who supports and admires someone or something, as well as meaning “someone who comes after” and the way Heaney explores the relationship here makes both meanings relevant.

You will notice a lot of technical things in this poem, in the way Heaney manipulates words and the sounds that they make. For instance, the consonance of the ‘f’ sound, “father… full… shafts… furrow…” the fricative effect both focuses our attention on these sounds and makes a soft, airy sound which could add to the sense of his speed as he cuts through the land. They don’t fall next to each other in an alliterative way, but if you listen to the first verse, you hear the sounds strongly. If you add the other fricative sounds from the first stanza, the ‘th’ sounds in “father… with… THE shafts… THE furrow” uses consonance to create that airy, light effect. F and TH are voiceless, gentle sounds. We also notice sibilance, in “sail strung… strained” which also adds to the effortless sound and smooth effect of some of those early sounds in stanza one that recreate the sound and image of his father at work. I like how Heaney uses these technical effects – it’s evocative of the same technical control his father has with the plough and horses and turns both activities into an art-form.

Heaney does the same thing with the stresses of the words and uses iambic tetrameter in many places:

“An EXpert. HE would SET the WING/And FIT the BRIGHT steel POINTed SOCK”

and you see the iambic tetrameter most obviously in the parts that recreate the smoothness of his father’s work. Where the iambic tetrameter fails, we see that the tone changes:

“I was a nuiSANCE, TRIPPing, FALLing/YAPPing alWAYS, but toDAY”

where the rhythm changes and the words need more focus to read aloud, where you cannot depend on the regularity to carry you.

Heaney uses enjambement and caesura in two ways too. One way is to show how his father turns round “and back into the land”, showing the continuousness and the lack of hesitation in the turn. We especially see this between stanza two and stanza three. Here the enjambement mimics his father’s actions. The caesura emphasises the statement, “An expert.”

Between line 19 and 20, we also see some noticeable enjambement as a sentence is split up. “All I ever did was follow/in his broad shadow round the farm” where the word follow is left dangling at the end of the line. Syllabically, it is the point to stop, since the lines have the ballad-style eight syllables but the iambic tetrametre doesn’t work here and the way “follow” is left dangling makes us think about it, pause a little before thinking about his father’s “broad shadow”. The enjambement emphasises the word “follow”, especially in conjunction with the repetition of “Follower” from the title.

Heaney is not a man to use fancy, high-fallutin’ words where simple ones will do; often I find that he uses a very Germanic language and that there are relatively few Latinate words, in this case “globed”, “expert” and “polished”.  What is perhaps surprising are the number of Old English words in the poem, from “horse-plough” and “shoulders” to “sail”  “strung” and “tongue” in the first stanza. These are our ‘heart’ words, the roots of our language, the basics, the most akin to our linguistic history. Interesting that he should choose such ‘functional’ and historical words rather than the perhaps more elevated additions of latinate words. Heaney makes something beautiful, evocative and poetic without resorting to elaborate vocabulary or complex diction. This is certainly ‘the language of our fathers’, without being decorated and sophisticated. For me, this is the appeal of it. The linguistic simplicity, the controlled techniques of pace and sound, the sparse diction… it is just perfectly in keeping with the subject of the poem.

You will notice too that it is thin on poetic devices other than those to complement sound and pace; we see few figurative devices. Of course, we have the simile of the sail in the first stanza, and the extended metaphor of ‘following’ but other than this, the use of figurative or poetic language is very sparse. There is nothing flowery or abstract about this poem – it’s not complicated or confusing, layered with symbolism or complexity. In this way, the use of figurative language is very fitting with the content, with the technical and practical skill exhibited by his father. We are left to puzzle out what the final metaphor means, with his father who stumbles behind him, “and will not go away” – where we see a shift to the future tense and we are left with a few puzzling questions – in what way does his father stumble behind him? Is this the near future or a certain ‘forever’ future? We go from “today” and the present tense to a sense of the future, where he sees the same frustrations reversed: he saw himself as a “nuisance” even though his father did not seem to, riding his child “on his back”, but we are not in any doubt that Heaney finds his father’s “stumbling” to be a nuisance. In what way does his father stumble? It only seems to work to me on a metaphorical level, that the son has now surpassed his father in terms of technical skill (if not in ploughing!) but feels haunted by his father, conscious that his father is lurking there in his subconscious and he cannot escape the feeling that his father is there. Perhaps too, the young boy has become a master in his own right and his father does not have his capability with words, but then the final line is redundant, in the “and will not go away” which is meaningless if there is a sense that his father is now following in his son’s footsteps, in terms of writing skill. This is why I just have this sense of a man who is haunted by his relationship, that he can’t escape from his father and the poem is, ipso facto, a method of expressing this sense of being unable to leave his father behind completely. That’s my take on it. However, it is true to say that the only complex or ambiguous part of this poem is the ending and to what it refers. In what sense is Heaney being “followed” by his father, and why won’t he “go away?”

Other questions we are left to ponder include Heaney’s use of the technical, his use of layout and his word choice. Why choose such a traditional form? Why have half-rhyme rather than no rhyme or a full rhyme? In what ways is he using form and rhyme to say something about the content of the poem? Why choose such a non-poetic range of vocabulary? Why stick with the one simile? What is the power of the one simile? What can be said about his use of enjambement and caesura?

These questions are your starting point to think about your own interpretation of this poem and what you think it means. Make sure you root your response in the text and in what you know, so that you can justify your answers.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about Follower, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

2 thoughts on “A brief analysis of Seamus Heaney’s “Follower”

  1. Hi! I’m sitting the new GCSE’s and coming across your site is gold. It’s absolutely fantastic and extremely helpful! Thank you so much 🙂

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