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Follower - Poem by Seamus Heaney

My father worked with a horse-plough,

His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

Between the shafts and the furrow.

The horse strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing

And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.

The sod rolled over without breaking.

At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round

And back into the land. His eye

Narrowed and angled at the ground,

Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,

Fell sometimes on the polished sod;

Sometimes he rode me on his back

Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,

To close one eye, stiffen my arm.

All I ever did was follow

In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always. But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.


FOLLOWER INTRODUCTION

In A Nutshell

Seamus Heaney comes from a long line of farmers. The poet from Northern Ireland was born into a
tradition of farming, which valued hard, physical labor, and exceptional skill in the field (pun
intended). If you've ever woken up with the roosters (real ones, not the cock-a-doodle-do alarm
tone) or plowed the fields, you know that farming is tough stuff. Much of Heaney's work, and
particularly the early poems included in Death of a Naturalist (1966)—like "Follower," or you can
also check out "Digging"—reflects the autobiographical elements of his close relationship to nature,
family, and hard work (usually all three together).

Many of the speakers in the poems of Death of a Naturalist also seem to struggle with their identity.
They too value nature, family, and hard work, but also feel that they're different from the tradition
from which they sprang. It's tempting (though always dangerous; poets can really trick us with their
active imaginations) to think of Heaney's speakers as a reflection of himself. He did, in fact, break
away from the family tradition of farming and manual labor to become a scholar and poet.
Regardless of the accuracy of the likeness, "Follower" is one the best examples in the book of a
speaker who both gives props to his heritage and recognizes a different identity for himself.

In "Follower," we have a boy who follows his farmer dad around while he plows the fields (sounds
fun, right?). He adores his dad—the boy thinks he has superhuman strength and skill—and wants to
be just like him. But instead of "following" in his dad's footsteps, he grows up to find his own path.
By the end of the poem, in a somewhat surprising and totally adorbs (but kind of weepy) turn of
events, his dad, in his old age, spends most of his time following his son around.

WHY SHOULD I CARE?

We've all had our "Be Like Mike" moments, even if they're more like "Be Like Lebron" or "Be like
Rhianna" moments today. We're especially impressionable to role models as youngsters. Whether
it's an older brother or sister, a parent, an actor, or famous athlete, part of growing up is dreaming
of who you could one day be like. Of course, we end up taking our own paths and shaping our own,
unique identities, but our role models help us discover our individuality by the influence (hopefully
positive) that they have on us. Okay, maybe you never will be able to reverse dunk, but your years
playing basketball will teach you teamwork, discipline, and sacrifice that will help you be awesome in
your own path.

This poem is a great example of that. Even though the boy spends tons of energy on trying to be like
his father, it's clear that he's going to be a very different person altogether. But it doesn't matter;
the father's influence is still important in shaping who the boy will be in later years. As Heaney
flashes to the present day at the end of the poem, we get a glimpse of two completely different men
with an extremely close (if troubled) bond. In other words, it doesn't really matter that you never
really end up like the role model you chose to follow while growing up. What matters is the
influence the role model has on you—not to make you more like him or her—but to make you
uniquely, and awesomely, you. High five, gang.
FOLLOWER SUMMARY

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The poem opens with the speaker's father plowing in the fields. He seems pretty darn good at it, too.
He leads his powerful horses through the field with grace, and Heaney describes the taxing nature of
the work.

The young speaker follows his father as he works, but he's nowhere near as comfortable with the
task. He's clumsy, and often stumbles and falls trying to keep up with the father-horse duo. The
speaker talks about how he looked up to his dad, and wanted to grow up to plow too, but how he
was never skilled enough to make it happen, which seems like kind of a bummer until we realize that
the speaker turns out perfectly alright.

At the end of the poem, we're sped up to the present day, where, in a complete turn of events, the
elderly father is now following the grown-up son, just as the son used to follow in his father's wake
while he was plowing the fields. It's a complete one-eighty, and shows that, although the speaker
was kind of a dud when it came to farming, that he turned out to be his own person and now his
father actually looks to him for guidance.

STANZA 1 SUMMARY

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Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

My father worked with a horse-plough

Okay—we're off and plowing. "Plough," by the by, is the British spelling for "plow," which is a
farming tool pulled by a tractor (or horse in this case) that cuts deep lines into the earth to prepare it
for planting.

This is a matter-of-fact opening for a poem. The speaker's father worked with a horse plow. With a
little sleuth work, we could probably guess that he was a farmer. We might also guess that, because
he gets the opening line, the father is going to play an important role in this poem.

Notice that Heaney begins the poem in the past tense. We might be looking into the speaker's past,
maybe even at a specific family memory. Let's read on to find out…

Lines 2-3

His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

Between the shafts and the furrow.

For those of you not in the know, here's a little Farming Terminology 101: the "shafts" are the long,
wooden things that the farmer holds on to and that are attached to the horse (what he steers with).
And the "furrow" is the deep line in the earth that the plow is cutting as it moves along (where you'd
plant seeds).

His shoulders, because they are hunched and straining with the effort of steering the plow, look
rounded from the back like sails do when the wind is blowing full force. And he's going full force,
too, using all of his strength to plow the field.
That's some tough work, buddy. Heaney is giving us a spot-on picture of how physically strenuous
horse-drawn plowing is. The speaker's father must be one tough cookie.

Heaney uses a technique known as sibilance in these lines. By that, we meant the alliteration of the S
sound, which makes for a smooth sounding line, so it's really inviting to the ear. Just like this expert
farmer smoothly guides the plow through the field, there's no halting or herky-jerky sound here that
makes you want to stop. The sibilance makes us want to glide right on to the next line. (Check out
"Form and Meter" for more on Heaney's use of sound.)

Line 4

The horse strained at his clicking tongue.

Here we get further evidence that the father knows what's up when it comes to plowing—the horse
listens to his commands, and works hard ("strained") for him. He's a total bawse.

It's also more proof that plowing is hard work. Even the horse is straining with the effort.

The speaker seems to respect his father and is proud of him for being such a strong, hard-worker.
Go, Dad.

We also notice some rhyme going on in this first stanza. Notice that line 4 ends with a rhyme for line
2 ("tongue" with "strung"). Lines 1 and 3 are a bit trickier. "Plough" and "furrow" sort of rhyme
(depending on your accent). At the least, we can say that these two words have a slant rhyme. For
more on good stuff like rhyme, check out "Form and Meter."

STANZA 2 SUMMARY

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Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 5–6

An expert. He would set the wing

And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.

Call him what you like: expert, number one stunnah—the speaker confirms the father's expertise
quite frankly in line five.

Continuing the crash course in Farming Terminology 101 (FT101 on your transcript): the wing and
steel-pointed sock are elements of the actual plow (the part that cuts into the earth) as it's dragged
by the horse and steered by the person.

Not only does the father know how to drive a plow, but he knows how to handle the equipment
expertly, too. He's got mad farming skills.

Lines 7-8

The sod rolled over without breaking.

At the headrig, with a single pluck


FT101 continued: Sod is the surface of the ground, usually with something like grass growing on it.
The plow's job is to cut the earth on the surface in order to rotate the nutrient-heavy and nutrient-
depleted soil (to mix things up so the next batch of crops will have their dirt vitamins when they're
planted).

To roll it over without breaking is desirable, because all of the nutrients in the top of the soil are
getting flipped over (where the new plants will draw nutrients from). So it's like flipping a pancake
from one side to the other, as opposed to having it crumble.

This is yet another example of how skilled the father is. He's no amateur sod-flipper-over-guy.

When Heaney refers to the "headrig," he just means the starting place of each plowed row. So he
begins at the headrig, plows the land, then turns to continue where he left off (basically making rows
up and down the field).

Rhyme check time: we get another perfect end rhyme ("wing" and "breaking") and another slant
rhyme ("sock" and "pluck"), which depends on consonance to carry the rhyme attempt. So what's up
with this neat pairing of rhymes, and not-so-neat pairing of rhymes? Knowing Heaney, if we had
tobet, we'd say he keeps that rhyme scheme going as straight and steady as the farmer keeps the
neatly plowed rows in this poem. Better check out "Form and Meter" to make sure.STANZA 3
SUMMARY

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Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 9

Of reins, the sweating team turned round

With a single "pluck" (a delicate little tug) of the reins (which are attached to the horses), they turn
around.

This line takes the admiration for the father one step further: not only is he skilled with the plowing
equipment, but his team of horses respects him so much that they hardly have to be told to make
the necessary turns. The horses know who's boss, it seems.

Lines 10–12

And back into the land. His eye

Narrowed and angled at the ground,

Mapping the furrow exactly.

The team of horses turns, and quickly gets back on track with the plowing.

Lines 11 and 12 really zoom in on the father. We get to see his squinting, focused eyes as they watch
the ground before him.

The speaker of the poem is studying him very closely.

We also get to see how focused the father is. In order to be as good at plowing as he is, he not only
needs to be strong and commanding, but extremely focused on the details of the land he's working
("mapping" […] "exactly"). Michael Jordan had the tongue out at moments of extreme
concentration, and this guy gets his squint on.
And we get another example of a perfect pair of end rhymes ("round" and "ground"), and a pair of
slant rhymes ("eye" and "exactly").

STANZA 4 SUMMARY

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Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

13

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,

Fell sometimes on the polished sod;

At last, enter the speaker. We're finally being introduced to the "I" of the poem (the son of the man
who's doing all that plowing).

Don't get too tripped-up on the Irishism "hob-nailed." It just means the places in the ground that the
plow and the plowman's feet have made ruts in.

The boy is tripping behind his father while he works, trying to keep up. As we've found out, the
father is very good at what he does, and seems completely focused and absorbed by the task, so
maybe it's not that easy for a young boy to keep up.

He also mentions that sometimes he falls on the "polished sod"—not very helpful, young man.
Here's hoping his dad is an understanding guy.

(The description of "polished" here suggests that the dirt is smooth and shiny where it's been cut by
the plow.)

Lines 15–16

Sometimes he rode me on his back

Dipping and rising to his plod.

His father seems like a cool dude. Even though he's working his bum off, he gives his son a
piggyback. Maybe his son isn't exactly helpful, but the father is probably touched to have such an
admiring fan accompanying him while he works. (Or at least he figures this will keep the boy out of
his way.)

"Dipping and rising" indicates the feel you might have when riding piggyback. The boy bounces along
on his father's back with each step.

Notice how the rhythm of the poem so far is a lot like "dipping and rising," too. The even length of
the lines (and the regular end rhyme-slant rhyme combos in each stanza) create a sense of rhythm in
the poem. So we can both imagine what the scene looks like and we can feel it, rhythmically, while
we're reading the poem. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that effect.)
STANZA 5 SUMMARY

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Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 17–18

I wanted to grow up and plough,

To close one eye, stiffen my arm.

No surprise here—the speaker (the son) wants to grow up and plow too because he admires his
father so much that he wants to be just like him.

He not only wants to grow up to plow, but he wants to mimic the exact way his father did it: "To
close one eye, stiffen my arm." It makes you wonder what is more appealing to the speaker: the
actual work of plowing, or becoming like the man he admires.

Keep in mind that the son doesn't seem exactly cut out for this kind of work, what with all the
stumbling and bumbling all over the place. It's like wanting to be a mathematician when you have
trouble with the times table. It's not looking good for him.

Lines 19-20

All I ever did was follow

In his broad shadow round the farm.

It seems he never gets to be a plowman, because "All (he) ever did was follow" his dad around the
farm. It doesn't look like he was ever actually learning to do the work in a hands-on sort of way.

It also seems like he lived in his father's shadow for a while, and from the way the speaker describes
it, it's a pretty big shadow—sort of like having big shoes to fill. The speaker spent a lot of time
admiring his father while he was growing up, and maybe that took away from becoming more
independent and pursuing his own path.

On the other hand, he seems like a pretty young kid. Maybe he'll break away from that shadow as he
gets older. Let's read on, Shmoopers.

STANZA 6 SUMMARY

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Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 21–22

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always. But today

The speaker admits he was just getting in the way while his father worked (we weren't going to say
anything, but yeah that was pretty obvious).
He wasn't much help to his dad, chatting and tripping all over his freshly-plowed field. MVP of
plowing was just not in the cards for him.

At the end of line 22, we're snapped back into the future with "today," and we get a hint in "But"
that things have changed.

Lines 23–24

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

Now that the speaker (son) is all grown up, and his father is an old man, his dad struggles to keep up
with his son.

The father is probably stumbling because, as an older person, he's not as sure on his feet as he used
to be. It's now the son's turn to lead the way, and he's mildly irritated at the father, who struggles to
keep up. My, how the tables have turned.

The second part of the final line, "and will not go away" works a couple of ways: first, that his father
is a little bit of a pest now, much like he was when he was a kid stumbling behind him in the fields.
The second more below-the-surface meaning gets at how deeply tied they are to one another—that
their father and son bond is something unbreakable, something that will not go away, regardless of
how circumstances may change.

Hmm. Maybe he's not such a pest after all.

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FOLLOWER ANALYSIS

(SUPER)MAN

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Symbol Analysis

Heaney is so successful in letting the reader know that the speaker adores his father without even
having to tell us. Through the speaker's almost obsessed attention, we get it. We're introduced to
every element of the father's work, and the details of every phase. His dad seems physically larger
than life, and more capable than the average man. Here are a few places where the son's point of
view really elevates the father from normal guy to hero status:

Line 2: Right at the beginning of the poem, we're shown that the father is larger than life. His
shoulders are so big and strong that they look like wind-filled sails.

Line 4: It seems like even a huge and muscular animal like a horse has to strain to keep up with this
man.

Line 5: The son doesn't disguise the fact that he thinks his dad is awesome and the best at what he
does.

Line 7: Dad's got the Michael Jordan finger roll touch. He's silky smooth.

Lines 8–9: His team responds to his commands without him even having to raise his voice.
Line 12: X-ray vision? Well, not maybe not exactly, but he seems to have quite the eye for the job.

Line15: This is the only instance in the poem where the speaker gets to be on an even level with his
father. His dad seems way out of reach, until he lifts the kid onto his strong back and pulls him along,
which has got to be super rad for the speaker.

Lines 19–20: You get the sense that, for the boy, it seems like the father's shadow encompasses the
entire farm. He can't leave his father's shadow because his father is much more powerful than him.

IMAGERY

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Symbol Analysis

While a huge chunk of the poem shows the boy following his dad around the field while he plows,
there are some subtler forms of following going on, too. We see the speaker literally follow his dad,
but he also makes it pretty clear that he wants to be like him when he grows up—to follow in his
footsteps and take the same path in life, probably to become a skilled farmer like him. While that
doesn't seem to happen (maybe he does end up being like the old man in some ways, but he doesn't
become a farmer), the end of the poem flips the script: the roles are reversed, and the father now
follows the son around.

Lines 10–12: Our speaker has got to be following his dad pretty closely in order to see him squinting
carefully at the ground. He's giving his dad the hawk eye in a serious way. He doesn't want to miss a
thing.

Line 13: This is a good example of the boy literally following his dad around, and figuratively trying to
keep up with him. Literally we can see him bumbling around the chunks of sod and struggling to
keep up. But we can also see that he "stumbles" in trying to grow up to be just like his father. He's
never the crazy skilled farmer that his dad is, and never will be. He'll always be stumbling in that
regard.

Line 17: Oh man, how our speaker would like to be the seed his dad plants that ends up growing into
a farmer.

Lines 19–20: Yeah, so it doesn't really work out. Even though he wanted to grow up to be like his
dad, he could never really get the farming thing down and lived in the big shadow of his father for a
long time.

Lines 22–24: He lived in his shadow for a long time, but these final lines are proof the he finally
climbed out of it and found his own patch of sun. Now the father is tagging along in the son's
shadow, annoying him in the same way the son used to do.

FORM AND METER

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End- and Slant-Rhymed Quatrains

Heaney's keeping things tight and orderly in this poem. Each stanza (group of lines) is made up of
four, alternately rhyming lines to make an ABAB rhyme scheme. So, the first line in each stanza
rhymes with the third line, and the second line rhymes with the fourth.

But let's listen closely for a minute. If you lend your ear to the page, you'll notice that some of the
rhymes are a bit… off. Check out stanza 2, for example, where "sock" is meant to rhyme with "pluck"
(lines 6 and 8). Sure they kind of rhyme, at least in their ending sound. This is an example of near
rhyme, or slant rhyme. In fact, in almost every stanza you'll find one true end rhyme pair and
another slant rhyme pair. So we get two perfect rhymes, for example in stanza 4 ("sod" and "plod"),
and we get two near rhymes ("wake" and "back").

Well, what up with that? We think this is actually kind of brilliant. Think about it: the speaker is
describing how he wants to be like this dad. That's a kind of loving bond that seems appropriate to a
perfect rhyming pair. However, it's painfully obvious that the speaker will never be like his dad, what
with all his remedial plow skills. So, we get these frustrated near rhymes to go with this almost-but-
not-quite feeling. Pretty neat, huh?

The end- and near-rhymes continue unwaveringly in the remaining four stanzas. You'll notice that
the lines are all pretty much the same length, too. Count them out—each line is 8 or 9 syllables long.
That kind of consistency makes for a very steady rhythm throughout the poem. If you look closely,
you'll find lines that fall neatly into iambic tetrameter. No need to freak out, though. An iamb is just
a two-syllable pair where the stress falls on the second syllable (say "alarm" out loud and you'll hear
a real, live iamb). Four of these iambs put together make up iambic tetrameter ("tetra-" means four).
So, we get regular rhythms like:

The horse strained at his clicking tongue. (4)

Hear that daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM? That's iambic tetrameter for you. Still, while you'll hear it
in some lines in the poem, you won't hear it in any consistent way. In that sense, the rhythm acts a
bit like those slant rhymes, coming near to a sense of harmony, but never quite getting it exactly. On
the surface, things look regular enough. Heaney doesn't zig and zag with the length of his lines; he
runs them to just about the same length every time. Maybe something he learned from his farming
days. But once you get into the actual rhythms of this poem, you feel like you're stumbling all over
the place, just like the speaker did as a young boy.

SPEAKER

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X

Get ready to get dirt under your fingernails. The speaker is the son of a farmer. He admires his
father, and spends much of his young years following him around the field, stumbling and chatting,
trying to keep up while his father works diligently. You can see the admiration for his father,
especially in the earlier parts of the poem: "The horse strained at his clicking tongue./ An expert" (4-
5). He goes on to further explain how crazy skilled he is that he can turn over sod without breaking
it, and he can manage his team like a pro: "The sod rolled over without breaking. At the headrig,
with a single pluck/ Of reins the sweating team turned round" (8-9). He's the baddest in the biz, and
his son is full of admiration.

Most of the poem is told in the past tense, as the speaker looks back to his childhood, and his
relationship to his father and his father's work, but at the very end, we're snapped into the present
tense. Now, the young boy has grown into a man, and the tables have turned: his father follows him
around all the time, and he can't seem to find a way to shake him. The final lines read: "But today/ It
is my father who keeps stumbling/ Behind me, and will not go away" (23-24). The speaker seems to
have shaken the desire to be like his dad and is a little taken aback, a touch annoyed that his dad
follows him around now.

In the end, then, the speaker's relationship with this dad is the real focus of this poem. Their
reversals are complete, an now it's Dad's turn to stumble and be annoying. This seems to speak to a
deeper rift between father and son. There must have been a time when they were on equal footing
(neither one stumbling or annoying), but they seem to have missed it in this poem.

But don't bust out the Kleenex just yet. It seems that last phrase—"will not go away"—also offers
the possibility of comfort, right? However they annoy one another, our speaker and his father still
have each other. Silver lining alert, gang.

SETTING

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Where It All Goes Down

Anyone down for a trip to the Irish countryside? This poem will take you there without the cost of
airfare or the hassle of the TSA (yes, you can keep your shoes on—though we won't tell if you don't).
For the most part, this poem takes place in a field that is being plowed by the boy's father and a
team of horses. And the scenes are all recalled from the memory of his childhood (we know because
it's told in the past tense).
Heaney does a characteristically good job of describing the richness of the land, and the difficulty of
the work. In line 7 he writes, "The sod rolled over without breaking" and you get both a vivid picture
of a big, rich chunk of soil and how skilled the father is. When he writes in lines 9–10, "the sweating
team turned round/ And back into the land," you can almost hear the horses breathing and sweating
into the dark soil. Heaney creates a great sensory experience for us, especially in the beginning of
the poem.

At the end of the poem, Heaney hits fast forward, and suddenly we're in the present day—"But
today"—(22). It's not clear where we are exactly (though it seems likely that we're no longer in a
field), and the father has taken over the role of the son as follower. Appropriately enough, that shift
in the relationship happens alongside a shift in the setting. We get two men (father and son), two
times (past and present), and two settings (the farm and somewhere in modern day). We also get
two very different relationships to go with these settings. Pretty slick work there, Seamus.

SOUND CHECK

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The quatrains with regular rhyme (both end and slant) make for built-in sound effects. Heaney also
establishes a predictable rhythm, too (even if the meter is not consistent), with lines that are
consistently 8 or 9 syllables. If you think about the action in the poem—the way the father plows up
and down each row—you'll see how the methodical action really corresponds with the predictability
of the lines and stanzas in the poem. And that's no coincidence at the hands of sound master
Heaney.

Though the rhyme is probably what stands out the most in terms of sound, Heaney is using some
other elements of sound, especially at the beginning of the poem, to draw you into the poem. It's
practically like sonic hypnosis. Listen closely (you're getting very sleepy…).

In the first stanza and even trickling into the second, we get something called sibilance, which is the
close repetition of S sounds. For example, in the first stanza you'll see: "horse," "his shoulders," "sail
strung," and "horse strained." All those S sounds really swish us along, maybe trying to mimic the
smoothness with which the father is able to plow because he is so skilled.

You'll also notice lots of consonance (the close repetition of consonant sounds) too, especially in the
first couple of stanzas: "clicking," "sock," "breaking," "pluck." The hard K sounds really stand out, as
if Heaney is using them to convey the hard nature of the work.
The smooth and steady sound Heaney achieves with a combination of even lines, rhyme, and
consonance make for an easy-to-read, almost hypnotic poem. You know how you tend to zone out if
you're doing the same thing over and over again, especially when it comes to physical activity? Well,
in this case you're lulled into a steady rhythm with all of these evenly-placed sound effects. They
sound like the horse as it plods continuously through the field, and the slow and steady sound of the
plow turning over the earth with every hypnotic step. Now… snap out of it!

WHAT'S UP WITH THE TITLE?

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The title really makes us want to dive into the poem to discover who is following whom, and who is
the leader. Maybe it could be a mysterious poem (think crime show stalker), or maybe it could be a
poem about devotion—romantic devotion, religious devotion—our imaginations are going wild even
before we've hit the first line.

Once we dive into the poem, we discover the title is working on a bunch of different levels. Most of
the poem is dedicated to describing how the son literally follows his dad around the field, but we
also see how the son figuratively wants to follow in his father's footsteps (to be a strong and skilled
farmer like him). By the end of the poem, Heaney turns things around completely. Now the father is
following the son. The idea of following is persistent in this poem, but it doesn't always follow the
same direction. Here's hoping we can keep up.

CALLING CARD

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Hard Work

Loafers beware: Heaney has a habit of glorifying hard work, particularly manual labor, in his poetry.
Often, just as in this poem, there is a member of the younger generation looking up to a man of the
older generation, and admiring his hard-working attitude and skill. (Just check out "Digging" for
another example.)

While Heaney himself is more of an intellectual man (as are many of the speakers of his poems—
coincidence?), his poems really do hanker after getting your hands dirty with some good old-
fashioned hard work. Dirt and elbow grease abound in Seamus Heaney's poetry, so quit your
goldbricking and roll up your sleeves.
TOUGH-O-METER

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(2) Sea Level

As long as you're paying attention, you won't likely get lost in this poem. The action is fairly
straightforward, but be prepared for a surprise ending. Your standard gear will do for this one, so
just relax and enjoy the hike.

TRIVIA

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Brain Snacks: Tasty Tidbits of Knowledge

Heaney was the eldest of nine kids. (Source.)

Heaney died after a short illness in Dublin, Ireland. Total bummer. (Source.)

At Heaney's alma mater, Queens University, there is now The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry,
with some of the top names in Irish poetry as part of its staff (see: Ciaran Carson, Edna Longley, and
Medbh McGuckian). That's a serious legacy. (Source.)

Though Heaney's poetry is deeply rooted in his Irish heritage, he spent many years living in both
Ireland and the U.S. (while teaching at Berkeley or Harvard). (Source.)

Seamus Heaney's work is often compared to one of the world's most famous poets, fellow Irishman
W.B Yeats. Not too shabby. (Source.)

STEAMINESS RATING

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Exactly how steamy is this poem?

This poem is strictly a father-son thing. There is no romance within a hundred yards of these two.
THEMES

ADMIRATION

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Oh, papa—this little dude really and truly looks up to his dad. Told through his eyes, his father is the
most magnificent plowman to have ever walked the face of the earth, and man, does he want to be
like him. The speaker of "Follower" is like a little puppy dog, following him around while he works,
stumbling and chatting (probably a complete distraction for his hard-working dad). He simply wants
to be around him. (All together now: "Aww.") The son's admiring eye takes in with impressive detail
his father's expert moves in the field. Though the son shows no signs of the skillfulness his dad has,
that doesn't stop him from wanting to follow in his footsteps.

Questions About Admiration

Which three lines in the poem do you think show the son's admiration at its strongest?

Why do you think the boy admires the father so much as a plowman when it seems perfectly clear
that the son has no natural affinity for plowing?

Do you think the father is really that good at plowing, or do you think the boy's admiration has
clouded his judgment a bit? What parts of the poem give you your answer?

At the end of the poem, the roles have reversed and the father is now following the son around all
the time. Do you think the father admires the son, just as the son admired the father? Or do you
think the situation is different (and how might it be)?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Meh—the admiration that the speaker recalls for his dad is likely short-lived, and is really nothing
special. He was just a kid, and all kids want to be like their dad at some stage of their lives. He
probably grew out of it six months later, when he dad his dad drop him off at school like six blocks
away.

Even though the son has grown up and he no longer follows his father like a puppy, he still admires
him. (Somebody's getting a "World's Greatest Dad" mug for the holidays.)
ADMIRATION QUOTES

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How we cite our quotes: (Line)

Quote #1

His shoulders globed like a full sail (2)

The son compares the size of his dad's working shoulders to a sail full of wind. We're pretty sure
even Andre the Giant's shoulders aren't even that big. He admires him so much that he thinks he's
larger than life. Also check out the assonance in these lines with "shoulders" and "globed." It gets
our ear's attention, just like the dad got the son's attention.

Admiration

Quote #2

An expert. He would set the wing

And fit the bright steel-pointed sock. (5-6)

Not only is his dad strong, but he's so good at what he does. He's not your average farmer, people;
he's an expert. Now don't get it twisted.

Admiration

Quote #3

The sod rolled over without breaking. (7)

The father's delicate touch with the plow is not lost on the super-attentive son. The father is not only
super-strong, but super-skilled, too. Heaney does a lot of work to establish the strength and skill of
the father, especially at the beginning of the poem. Rather than just state, "My dad's the baddest in
the biz," Heaney shows a whole slew of actual examples that illustrate his strength and skill.

Admiration
THEME OF FAMILY

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Though the saying, "like father like son" might not perfectly apply to these two (the father seems to
be equipped with a set of strengths and skills that the son exhibits no evidence of having), that
doesn't mean the bond between them is any less significant. The fact that the son admires his father
so much only reinforces the power of the father-son relationship in "Follower"—they're nothing
alike in terms of skill set, and yet the son is so completely fixated on the father as a role model, and
the father is at least able to tolerate the bumbling son. Their family bond goes way beyond the
camaraderie of shared interests. They're bound by blood, a fact that's driven home by the poem's
ending as the two switch roles in each other's lives. The family that takes turns annoying each other
together stays together.

Questions About Family

What about this father/son relationship might hints that these two are close?

What does work have to do with family tradition? And why might the boy want to do the same work
as his father?

If the son didn't end up having any of the farming skills his father had, do you think it's possible to
have learned anything at all from following his dad around the fields? What parts of the poem
support your answer?

What do the last three lines say about the complex relationship between these family members?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Plowing, schmowing—the son isn't necessarily interested in plowing at all. He just wants to do what
his father does; their father-son bond is incredibly strong.

Work is something that has always been closely related to family tradition (people inherit family
businesses and trades all the time). So the fact that the son shows no promise for plowing (worst
farmer ever) is disappointing for the father.

FAMILY QUOTES

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Quote #1

My father worked with a horse plough, (1)

The first thing that comes to the speaker's mind in this memory is "my father." That's an indication
that family is going to play an important role in the poem. Daddio will probably be particularly
important.

Family

Quote #2

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake, (13)

We're really born in the wake of our parents, and we spend a lot of time trying to catch up to them.
The speaker is no different, and luckily for him, he seems to really admire his father, so the prospect
of following in the family footsteps is more enticing, even if it is a little intimidating. Heaney's having
some fun with the sound of this line, using consonance: "stumbled" and "hob-nailed" with all those
B and D sounds really give us the sense of the speaker bumbling around—it's not as smooth
sounding as the S sounds in the first stanza that describes the father's work.

Family

Quote #3

Sometimes he rode me on his back (15)

How sweet. The father seems to recognize his son's attention, so even though he's in the middle of
work and giving his kid a piggyback ride probably doesn't make things any more productive, he gives
him some much-craved attention.

Family

THEME OF STRENGTH AND SKILL

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In "Follower," the speaker's father is the model of strength and skill. According to his son, he's an
absolute expert with the plow. And plowing, especially the horse-drawn kind, is no easy work. It
takes an incredible amount of strength to steer the horses and manage the actual plow. Even with all
its inherent difficulty, the father is so skilled that he makes it look like a piece of cake (a piece of dirty
cake, but still). The father's strength and skill is why the son adores him so much. He looks up to him
as a role model for being so good at what he does, so much so, that he's certain he wants to grow up
and plow—just like dear old dad.

Questions About Strength and Skill

What about the balance of the father's strength and skill makes him so ideal for plowing?

Do you think the father is as strong and skilled as the speaker tells us he is, or do you think he's
exaggerating because he admires his dad so much? Why do you think so?

Do you think strength and skill matters in particular because this is a father-son duo, or do you think
it would be equally important to a mother-daughter duo? In other words, do you think Heaney
decided to have the young speaker zero in on his father's strength and skill because he was such a
masculine role model, or do you think masculinity has nothing to do with it? (After your discussion,
check out Heaney's poem "Churning Day". Does this change your opinion at all?)

In the speaker's memory, he's kind of a bumbling weakling compared to his father. Do you think the
son ever grew up to be just as strong as his father? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The father's ability is so impressive because he balances what appear to be two opposite qualities:
sheer muscular power with delicate and precise skill. Way to go, dad.

We hate to bust any bubbles, but… the father wasn't likely any more skillful or strong than any other
grown man; the son just thought he was exceptional because he was so young and undeveloped at
the time.

STRENGTH AND SKILL QUOTES

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Quote #1
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

Between the shafts and the furrow.

The horse strained at his clicking tongue. (2-4)

You can see the physical effort the father is giving by his domed shoulders; even the horse is working
his tail off. He's got to be one strong dude to have shoulders that huge, too.

Strength and Skill

Quote #2

An expert. He would set the wing

And fit the bright steel-pointed sock. (5-6)

Not only is he strong, but he's skilled, an expert with the plowing equipment. You can't have one
without the other, it seems. The consonance of those T sounds gives the line a neat and exact
feeling, which is perfect to show us how expert el padre was.

Strength and Skill

Quote #3

The sod rolled over without breaking. (7)

This line attests to the father's skill and strength; you have to have a pretty delicate touch to plow
through the ground without breaking it. It's like being able to fell a giant oak tree then whittle it into
a perfect sculpture. There's no limit to this guy's awesomeness.

Strength and Skill

THEME OF IDENTITY

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The speaker of "Follower" seems pretty young for most of the poem—he's looking into the past
when he was a child, following his dad around the field as he plowed. Although he doesn't show any
natural knack for being able to plow (he's clumsy and chatty), he thinks he wants to be plowman like
his father. (Lots of luck, junior.) As a kid, it's normal to want to identify with those we admire
(especially if they're part of your family—parents and older siblings are prime candidates), and we
spend a lot of time following them around, trying our hardest to be like them regardless of how
different we actually are. This poem is a perfect example of a young person wanting to shape his
identity based on the person he admires most: his dad. And while he doesn't end up being a farmer,
the two are still together on into the boy's adulthood. Only now, years later, the grown-up boy
seems to be finally assuming his father's identity of being a leader and setting the pace, while the
dad lapses back into the boy's following ways.

Questions About Identity

Why do you think the boy would want to follow in his father's footsteps as a farmer if he (the son)
didn't seem to have any of the skill or strength it took to become one? Why wouldn't he choose
something he was more naturally suited for?

Do you think the son's careful attention to his father helped shape his own identity in any way, even
if he didn't grow up to become a farmer? Why or why not?

Does the final stanza (when the father is following the son around) give any indication that the son
has found an identity of his own? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Coattails can be a good place to grow up. Following his father around and admiring him was an
important part of shaping the speaker's identity.

The speaker had to learn what he was not good at (plowing or other physical work) in order to shape
his own identity and explore other things he might be better at. Keep your options open,
Shmoopers.

IDENTITY QUOTES

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Quote #1

My father worked with a horse plough, (1)


Whether you like it or not, your parents shape your identity in one way or another (even if it's just
genetically). The opening of the poem might be a set up for the son to compare himself to his father
in some way.

Identity

Quote #2

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,

Fell sometimes on his polished sod; (13-14)

So much of finding yourself can be a rocky road. As the son struggles to keep up with his dad, he
looses his footing along the way, both literally (in the field) and probably figuratively, too. He has to
find something besides farming to pursue, because he's not really good at it.

Identity

Quote #3

I wanted to grow up and plough,

To close one eye, stiffen my arm. (17-18)

As a kid, the speaker thought he could shape his identity based on his father's. He thought his father
was pretty great, so why not grow up to be just like him? One problem: he inherited just about zero
of the farming skills that his dad had. Time for plan B.

Identity

FOLLOWER QUESTIONS

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Bring on the tough stuff - there’s not just one right answer.

Why do you think Heaney spends so much time describing the father's expertise?

How does the fact that the son is the speaker of the poem affect your reading?
If the son looked up to his father so much, why do you think he didn't just learn how to plow? What,
or who, could have been preventing him from following in his father's footsteps?

How does the title affect your reading of the poem? Does it change or develop in meaning for you as
the poem progresses? How so?

What is the effect of the 180-degree turn we get at the end of the poem (when the speaker says his
dad follows him around all the time)? Does it change the way you think about the rest of the poem?
How so?