Much of Heaney’s work is devoted to what, for want of a better word, may be called tradition. Tradition is the set of customs that are inherited by a culture and give it its identity. In ‘‘Follower,’’ Heaney makes the particular craft of farming—his father’s excellence at its tasks, as well as the close association between father and a son made possible by the traditional way of life in which a son was essentially apprenticed to his father for education—stand for tradition as a whole. A great deal of Heaney’s later work has involved the adaptation or translation into modern English of works vital to the Western tradition including stories from Irish mythology, Greek tragedy, and the AngloSaxon epic Beowulf. In his own poetry Heaney often laments the loss of tradition. ‘‘Follower’’ is one of the most important examples of Heaney’s treatment of tradition. It describes in loving, idealized terms the agricultural way of life that represents tradition for Heaney, in particular his father’s way of life as he knew it in his own childhood. In the last stanza of the poem, there is a stark transition to Heaney’s adult viewpoint, where his embrace of modernity and progress has jarringly pulled him out of the traditional way of life and left it a staggering wreck shambling behind him.
The Shoulders of Giants
In the fourth stanza of ‘‘Follower,’’ Heaney describes his young self riding piggy-back on his father’s shoulders while the elder is plowing. This is probably unlikely as a physical fact (though not impossible), but it is best taken as an allegorical reference to one of the most important themes of Western literature and culture, the idea that if modern people see farther than the ancients, it is because they are pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants. This slogan was first developed during the little Renaissance of the twelfth century when Western Europe received a great mass of Greek literature in Arabic translation, immensely enriching medieval culture. The phrase was coined by Bernard of Chartres, as quoted by Jacques Le Goff in The Birth of Europe, in the form ‘‘we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants,’’ and has been repeated countless times since then. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance it meant that contemporary achievements were small and weak compared to those of Classical antiquity and that anything that seemed an advance over the ancients was only a tiny addition to the GrecoRoman foundation. The phrase continued to be popular during the Scientific Revolution, but in the less radical sense of indicating that each generation of researchers owes an enormous debt to their predecessors. In this sense the phrase has been adopted as the slogan of the Google Scholar service, which is dedicated to searching scholarly periodical literature on the Internet: ‘‘Stand on the shoulders of giants.’’
In more recent times, the Renaissance slogan has been used to criticize modernity. The cynical short story writer and essayist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) in his ‘‘Prattle’’ column in the San Francisco Examiner, used it to highlight the supposed insignificance of modern culture compared to that of the ancients:
“My friends, we are pigmies and barbarians. We have hardly the rudiments of a true civilization; compared with the splendor of which we catch dim glimpses in the fading past, ours are as an illumination of tallow candles. We know no more than the ancients; we only know other things; but nothing in which is an assurance of perpetuity, and nothing which is truly wisdom. Our vaunted elixir vitae is the art of printing with movable types. What good will those do when posterity, struck by the inevitable intellectual blight, shall have ceased to read what is printed? Our libraries will become their stables, our books their fuel.”
In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–85), the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche composes a parable in which a dwarf standing upon the soldiers of the ancient lawgiver Zarathustra is nevertheless unable to see the same profound insight that Zarathustra does because he is not only small in stature but also in imagination and vision, suggesting that the relatively small advances in philosophy and culture made since antiquity are insignificant compared to the original base.
Heaney’s use of the pygmies on the shoulders of giants motif seems somewhat different again. On the one hand he makes the pairing not of mythological or stereotypical figures, but of a father and son, suggesting a much stronger connection between the two halves of the metaphor than is usual, contradicting the function of the idea of size difference to emphasize the gulf between the ancients and moderns. On the other hand, the entire metaphor of learning falls apart because Heaney’s academic education is in no usual sense dwarfed by his father’s lack of conventional learning. Rather, what Heaney is suggesting by these transformations is that the modern learned culture represented by himself, which is a link to the larger Western traditions of antiquity and the Renaissance, must be in some sense inferior and secondary to the traditional culture represented by his father. It is removed from the direct connection to the earth, which is the source of tradition.
The literal theme of ‘‘Follower’’ is plowing. This essential agricultural work has been used as a metaphor for the union of man and woman throughout the history of Western literature and going back to Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature. In this usage, the field is conceived of as feminine and the plough the masculine force. Karen Moloney, in Seamus Heaney and the Emblems of Hope has pointed out that the mythological theme of the pre-Christian Irish kings marrying the goddess earth and pledging to protect her as his wife would increasingly concern Heaney in his his later work. If we view the act of plowing in ‘‘Follower’’ as a symbolic marriage, it offers an explanation for the sudden appearance of young Heaney, as a sort of earth-born offspring of Ireland. The poem then takes on a dreamlike quality in which Heaney’s birth and maturity, alongside the maturity and decline of his father, the succession of the generations, is compressed into a single moment. It emphasizes Heaney’s rootedness in the tradition of rural Ireland.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Seamus Heaney, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009