‘‘Follower’’ consists of six four-line stanzas, or quatrains. Each stanza follows an abab rhyme scheme, meaning the first and third line of each stanza rhyme, as do the second and fourth. No particular metrical scheme is followed, and the length of the lines is determined by the ideas they contain and by grammatical breaks.
Heaney takes as his subject a description of his father plowing a field. He does not use a tractor. No modern device intrudes on the scene. His father cuts through the field with an old-fashioned hand plow drawn by a horse. The use of horses (most likely a team) indicates some level of prosperity since a less successful farmer would be forced to use a cheaper draft animal such as an ox. The plough horses are well trained and respond to the plowman’s voice command. The metaphor of the second and third lines is somewhat odd. The speaker views his father in profile and describes the curve of his body bent over in the act of plowing as the curve of a sail billowing out from attachment points at the handles of the plough and at the trench being cut into the sod by the plough blade. But, of course, the billowing shape in this instance is coming off the back of the plow and would suggest motion contrary to the forward progress of the plough. But, no doubt, the image is not used for its literal applicability but for its suggestion of the smooth motion of sailing, propelled by nature rather than a man-made device such as a tractor engine. The transformation of the plowman into a sail suggests that the plough as a whole is sailing over the field like a ship, and one cannot help but think that it is a vessel for the preservation of tradition, modeled, perhaps on the metaphor of the ship of the Church as the vessel preserving the faithful and Catholic tradition on the storm-tossed sea of the world. The fact that the father is stretched between the plow and the cut he is making in the ground also suggests the special connection of the farmer to the earth.
The second stanza develops the theme of the father’s expertise as a farmer. The process being described is a plough running over the earth to create a fold in which seed can be sown to germinate and hence produce a crop. The specialized blade that cuts into the soil and turns it over is called a moldboard. This is supported by a wooden framework with handles that allow the farmer to guide the plowing and a rigging at the head to enable the horses to pull the plough. The blade and framework together make up the plough. The pointed blade attached to the front of the moldboard that does the cutting is called a ploughshare, although Heaney makes a point of referring to it by an Irish dialectical word that is only a homonym to the English word ‘sock’; that is, it has the same sound but a completely different meaning and origin. The trailing part of the moldboard that actually turns the earth is likened by a conventional metaphor that is really a technical term to the similarly shaped anatomy of a bird. As his father plows, he leaves a solid swath of turned over soil, as opposed to a trail of broken clods of earth. This emphasizes again his father’s special skill at his work, as does his control over the horses.
There is a striking enjambment between the second and third stanzas. Enjambment is the continuation of sense and grammatical units across the boundaries of metrical or formal units in poetry. In this case not only a sentence but a clause extends across the stanza break. This is a poetic representation of the continuous action of plowing: just as the plowman leaves a continuous path of sliced up earth, the poet keeps going smoothly across the stanzas. Given Heaney’s love of the archaic, probably the effect he had in mind was the boustrophedon style of writing. When alphabetic writing was first introduced into Archaic Greece from the Near East, there was considerable uncertainty among scribes about the direction of the writing itself. Some chose to start at the left and write toward the right in the way that is standard in European languages (probably because of the prevalence of right-handedness). Others, however, preserved the Semitic practice of writing from right to left. A few examples survive in boustrophedon, in which the first line of a text reads from left to right, but the second from right to left, the third from left to right again, and so on, the scribe always writing the first letter of the next line directly underneath the last letter of the previous line. This type of writing is called boustrophedon from Greek words denoting the motion of plowing oxen back and forth across a field.
The third stanza reiterates the early themes of the poem: the father’s skill and perhaps the nautical metaphor of the first stanza, if there are references to the age of exploration under sail in the sense of navigating through the field requiring the making of a new map. The sense of repetition itself is important since once the plowman has crossed the field he must turned around and exactly repeat his procedure over and over, back and forth, until the entire field is plowed.
So far the speaker has viewed his father’s plowing through the eyes of memory. In the fourth stanza he suddenly sees and shows the reader his younger self, perhaps four or five years old, before he would have entered his parish school, playing in the field where his father is working. In the traditional society that Heaney was destined to leave as soon as he attended a prestigious boarding school in Derry, this is how children would have learned the routines and skills of labor on the farm, by playing and then working with their parents as they performed their age-old tasks. The likening of the long cuts made into the ground by his father’s plowing through the waves left by the passage of a ship may be taken as a reemphasis of the earlier nautical metaphor. Heaney describes his young self as awkward and uncertain, unable to follow in his father’s footsteps. But his father picks him up and lets him ride on his shoulders. These are powerful metaphors establishing the relationship between father and son. Heaney is unable to go forward in the tradition of his family and his father, but he is nevertheless supported and uplifted by that tradition.
The fifth stanza deals with the speaker’s incapacity to imitate his father’s way of life. This is his desire, but his imitation is childish and exaggerated. He cannot become a plowman but can only follow behind the plowman. His father casts a shadow larger than his young body, a reference to the idea of being overshadowed by one’s predecessors.
In the first sentence of the last stanza Heaney characterizes his young self as a positive distraction, getting in the way of his father, and never able to keep up with him owing to his unstable awkwardness. Then, changing his perspective and tone, the speaker says that now the situation is reversed; his father is the awkward follower. Heaney’s father was a peasant farmer, a man of tradition, who cannot make his way in the modern world as Heaney—a professor, writer, and poet—can do. His father’s tradition is dead and his father with it, but yet it stands behind Heaney in his encounter with modernity. The fit between the two worlds is as awkward from the viewpoint of the modern as it was from the viewpoint of tradition: Heaney’s childhood gracelessness was a foreshadowing of this. Young Heaney would not leave his father’s footsteps, but playfully and haltingly dogged him. His father will now, however, stay behind Heaney, supporting him as a bridge to an imperishable tradition, however haltingly.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Seamus Heaney, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009