Think of a poem that you have studied that features a family story, situation or relationship. 20 marks
Poet: Seamus Heaney
Introduce the family in the poem and briefly describe their story. Support your answer with quotations.
In this poem Heaney brings to life the past labours of his father and his grandfather. His father was a farmer who dug potatoes. Heaney effectively brings to life his father at work through apt aural and visual images as he recalls the ‘clean rasping sound/When the spade [sunk] into gravelly ground/My father digging’. We are told that his father is ‘bent low’ and ‘comes up twenty years stooping in rhythm through potatoes. This is a family farm and everyone is involved in its daily chores. The poet informs us that he picked potatoes and that he loved ‘their cool hardness in our hands’. Heaney’s father’s work parallels with that carried out by his grandfather in Turner’s bog in that both tasks are difficult and physically demanding. Heaney’s admiration of his grandfather’s skill is clear through his choice of verbs: ‘Nicking and slicing, heaving heavy sods/Over his shoulder, going down and down/For the good turf’. However, as the poet reflects on these memories, he becomes very cognisant of the fact that he has ‘no spade to follow men like them’. The penultimate stanza represents a personal crisis for the poet as he is loath to the break in the family tradition. He resolves this issue through the use of an imaginative metaphor in the final stanza.
How does the poet tell the story of this family? Consider style and technique.
Heaney opens the poem with an effective visual image: ‘Between my finger and thumb/The squat pen rests’. Heaney’s pen is at rest whilst he reminisces on his family. He brings to life a memory of his father digging. We are told of the ‘clean rasping sound/When the spade sinks into the gravelly ground’. We are told of the father who is ‘bent low’. Heaney’s father strikes me as a very hard-working man as this work demands a lot of physical strength.
Heaney’s admiration of his grandfather’s skill is clearly evoked through his choice of verbs: ‘Nicking and slicing, heaving heavy sods’. Heaney is proud of his grandfather. The olfactory and tactile image of ‘the cold smell of patoto mould, the squelch and slap/Of soggy bog’ brings to life the physicality of farming. Heaney recognises the commitment and resilience of both his father and grandfather. However, the poet laments that he has ‘no spade to follow men like them’. Heaney feels somewhat alienated and disconnected from his family. Through his creative use of metaphor the poet is able to reconcile this difficulty.
Heaney is able to metaphorically follow and continue the family tradition of digging by writing poetry:
‘Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests
I’ll dig with it’