Follower by Seamus Heaney Analysis: AQA Love and Relationships

Follower by Seamus Heaney

Between the shafts and the furrow,
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.

Thomas Hardy

Welcome back to Beyond English’s AQA Love and Relationships poetry bonanza. This week, we’re exploring Follower by Seamus Heaney. We’ll be focusing on:

  • Context
  • Structure
  • Analysis

Follower Context

Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 near Castledawson in County Derry, Northern Ireland and was brought up on his father’s cattle farm. The majority of the work in the area was in the agricultural industry. 

In this early stage of life, Heaney wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, and this would have been expected of him; traditionally, boys would take on their father’s farmland. 

However, as he grew up, Heaney found himself following an altogether different direction to his father. He studied English at Queen’s University in Belfast, then trained as a secondary school teacher. He began to publish poetry in 1962. His first major collection of poems, Death of a Naturalist, was critically acclaimed and won several awards. His poems were influenced by his childhood in Northern Ireland and the rural surroundings he grew up in. 

Heaney went on to become a professor at both Harvard University and Oxford. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, and continued writing poetry until his death in 2013 at the age of 74. 

In his autobiographical poem Follower, Heaney affectionately recalls the childhood memory of following his father around as he worked and the admiration he felt for him. Sometimes he would stumble on the uneven ground and his father would carry him. At this stage, Heaney’s ambition was to be like his father. Later in the poem, he explores the gap between his father’s generation and his own and, like many of his other poems, touches on his feelings of guilt that he did not continue the family tradition and follow his father into farming. 

Follower Structure

In the first five stanzas, Heaney reflects on a childhood spent following his father around the farm as he purposefully and expertly completes his work. He has uncompromising admiration for his father and the reader is able to experience this from Heaney’s own point of view. 

In the final stanza, Heaney explores the change in his relationship with his father. The change from past tense into present tense highlights the change in their relationship and demonstrates the passing of time. The opening of the poem emphasises the power and capability of his father when he is performing manual labour; however, this is contrasted with the description at the end that suggests his father has lost some of this strength and stability in his old age. The poem suggests that their roles have reversed and now his father looks to him for help and support. It might also suggest that Heaney longs for his father to respect his work as he respects his father’s. 

Follower by Seamus Heaney Poem Analysis

The poem demonstrates the poet’s admiration of his father through his use of positive and complimentary language that emphasises his skill, calling him an ‘expert’ and explaining how he could control the horse and plough with a ‘single pluck’. Heaney praises his father’s strength and hard work through phrases like ‘the sweating team’ and ‘his broad shadow’, and again this language displays his obvious respect and pride for his father. He emphasises his precision and skill through phrases like ‘his eye narrowed’ and ‘mapping the furrow exactly’. 

Heaney uses an agricultural semantic field to show his understanding of his father’s role, using technical vocabulary for the plough such as ‘wing’ and ‘headrig’, showing how he learned from his father when he was a child and understands about farming and his father’s work. However, this is contrasted in the final stanza by the reference to his father ‘who keeps stumbling behind me’; this might suggest that Heaney’s father does not understand Heaney’s work the way that the poet understands farming, or that the bond with his father has decreased because he can’t keep up with Heaney’s work and interests. 

Imagery of sailing is used within the poem, with the simile ‘globed like a full sail strung’ to suggest his shirt is like a billowing sail, and the ‘sod rolls over without breaking’ to mimic waves. This suggests the sense of adventure that the poet feels when he is with his father, joining him in his work and following in his ‘wake’, like following a navigator or leader. 

In the final line, the poet’s statement that his father ‘will not go away’ could be seen as implying irritation that his father has become needy in his old age, as Heaney was as a child. However, it could also be interpreted as saying that their bond has remained throughout their lives and will not go away even as their circumstances change.

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