Heaney’s ‘‘Follower’’ concerns the transition from a traditional way of life to a new way of life embedded in modernity. For Western civilization as a whole, this process began during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. For Heaney’s family and for the poet himself, this change occurred in the course of Heaney’s own life and education.
In a traditional culture such as the one in which Heaney grew up in rural Ulster in the early 1940s, most people accepted the culture they were part of as given, not something to be questioned or examined. Life was based on closely held human relationships, not only within families but between individuals of differing classes, such as landowners and peasants, whose interactions created the economic fabric of culture. An individual’s place in society was largely determined by his ancestry, with some exceptions, including peasant boys who became priests or sailors. Almost everyone lived as peasants, whose lives and livelihood were inextricably bound up with the natural world through their work as farmers. The perception then of an ideal life was a satisfying mixture of physical labor and wisdom that allowed one to successfully navigate society as it existed. Larger issues such as religion were also determined by family tradition. By and large culture was fixed and unchanging. This was seen to be good because it reflected a moral hierarchy and tradition that supported and transcended human existence; the individual led a good life by fulfilling his place in the societal order.
Heaney describes his boyhood life in this kind of environment in Crediting Poetry, the lecture he gave in acceptance of his Nobel Prize in 1995. He cherishes the satisfied isolation of his peasant family:
“In the nineteen-forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever growing family in rural County Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world.”
To his boyhood self, the world seemed a place full of magic, which we may understand to mean animated with belief and meaning. The only way in which the outside world intruded was the single modern device in the family’s life, the shortwave radio. Even this seemed to the young Heaney a source of divination and miracle, as magical voices talked about far-off events in a war that might as well be happening in the land of ‘‘Once upon a time.’’ ‘‘But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signaling us as well,’’ he recalled in his lecture. He did not at that time view the radio and the modern world it was a connection to as agents of change. Before he was sent to a modern school, where his parents hoped he would find the means of a life better than their own, or at least a place in the world outside their retreating livelihood, he accepted the order of the world as it was, as it had always been. ‘‘The wartime, in other words, was pre-reflective time for me. Pre-literate too. Pre-historical in its way.’’
Modernity brought dramatic change to every area of life, undermining and replacing almost every element of traditional ways of life, first in Western Europe and then increasingly throughout the whole world as Western culture became dominant in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment set about to examine all of the certainties that underpinned life in traditional culture—the very things that seemed to make civilized life safe and meaningful—and to expose these traditions as false or meaningless. The very nature of the universe was changed by the heliocentric revolution. The social order was overturned and shown to be built on injustice rather than justice by the French Revolution and such Enlightenment treatises as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1761), and eventually Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848). Social support for traditional religions also eroded as educated classes embraced deism and even atheism, while simple irreligion has become increasingly widespread, with, for instance, a dramatic decrease in church attendance in Western Europe throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Work once followed the natural rhythms of agricultural life and families worked together on farms with parents acting as teachers to their children, instructing them in the skills necessary for their lives. But the vast majority of workers were sooner or later forced to leave the land for employment in factories. This meant laboring at unfulfilling and often dangerous, repetitive work tending machines; it also meant separation of the family with fathers isolated for long hours in the factories. The twentieth century brought about two world wars, which turned the power of industrial production to the destruction of human life.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Seamus Heaney, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009