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Relevant BackgroundSummaryThemesTones
Imagery | Sound Effects

Field of Vision
Seamus Heaney [1939]

Relevant Background

  • Seamus Heaney grew up on a farm called Mossbawn, in Co. Derry.
  • Heaney received his education in Derry and Belfast.
  • He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
  • Heaney’s poetry is down-to-earth. He uses everyday English a lot in his poems.
  • He describes his private thoughts and feelings very honestly. His images are so frank that his poetry can surprise or shock us.
  • Seamus Heaney uses images of people, nature and animals a lot in his poetry. He uses these images to comment on himself and people in his life.
  • Memory plays a major part in the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s images accurately recall memories. His images reveal ideas, feelings and happenings from his past.
  • A lot of his poems are set in his local rural background.
  • He shows his admiration for many local figures and relatives in his poetry.
  • Seamus Heaney describes landscape very well. He uses countryside images to express his thoughts. When he describes objects on the landscape, he is also describing human feelings and human thoughts. A good example of this in the poem ‘Field of Vision’ is when he describes a hawthorn bush as ‘agitated’.

Summary

In this poem, Seamus Heaney states his admiration for his aging aunt.
There are five stanzas of four lines each. He portrays his aging aunt in her old age. She was confined to a wheelchair and used to stare out the window. Seamus Heaney looked beyond her apparent sadness. He imagines that she enjoyed a mysterious quality of life through her imagination.

In the first stanza, Heaney simply recalls a memory of an old woman sitting in a wheelchair. She gazed out through a window constantly. The old woman stared down a lane at sycamore trees, ‘unleafing and leafing’.
When leaves fall off trees in autumn the trees are ‘unleafing’ according to Heaney with this new word he made up. ‘Leafing’ simply means growing. Heaney made up this phrase to refer to the constant cycle of decay and growing in nature. He describes his aunt as someone who watches this cycle. He thinks she finds a deep meaning in it.

In the second stanza, Heaney describes the everyday things the old woman’s gaze ignored. He notices that she stared beyond the television. She preferred a far-off view of the countryside through a window. Heaney lists some nearby sights that she ignored. She looked past a crooked hawthorn bush, young calves out in miserable weather, the field with the yellow ragwort weeds and the mountain. This woman, his aunt, stared past all these sights.

In the third stanza, Heaney focuses on the appearance of the old woman. She was steady: ‘steadfast as the big window’. She had no lines on her forehead: ‘Her brow was clear’. Heaney compares her shiny forehead to chrome metal. This woman never complained or expressed sadness. She showed no feelings:
‘she never carried a spare ounce of emotional weight’.

The fourth stanza runs on to the fifth stanza. This is due to a run on line at the end stanza four: ‘where you could see deeper into the country’.
In the fourth stanza, Heaney admits that sitting and looking at his old aunt was ‘an education’.
Surprisingly, Heaney admires the strange old woman. He doesn’t view her as an imbecile.
Heaney regards her as a woman who was staring at visions. He compares her visions to images or visions he used to see. He used to stare into open countryside, over an iron gate between white pillars. From this, he learned to view the landscape in an open-minded way. This led to many surprising moments of vision for him. He imagines the woman also sees visions.

In the final stanza, Heaney describes one of his own strange experiences. As he stared into the countryside, he discovered a new way of looking at an ordinary field:
‘the field behind the hedge grew more distinctly strange’.
He reckons that his aunt was having similar experiences everyday.


Themes

The theme of this poem is education.
The poet shows the beauty and imagination hidden behind a person’s silence:
‘Face to face with her was an education’.
The poem shows that we should not underestimate people.

The poet celebrates moments of vision:
‘the field behind the hedge grew more distinctly strange’.

The poet shows respect for the inner life of an old woman with a blank stare:
‘I remember this woman who sat for years
in a wheelchair, looking straight ahead’.
The theme of the poem could also be stated as a celebration of his aunt’s inner strength.

In this poem Seamus Heaney shows that old people can have visions like poets:
‘Face to face with her was an education
of the sort you got across a well-braced gate’.
This quote also supports the theme of respect for old age.

The poet portrays the hidden charm of the countryside:
‘discovered that the field behind the hedge
grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing focused’.

The poet shows that disabled people have the same ability as poets to see mystery:
‘looking straight ahead
out the window at sycamore trees unleafing and leafing’.
This quote also suggests the old are fascinated with the passage of time, with the cycle of decay and growth.

This poem portrays unpleasant images of the Irish countryside:
‘The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain’.

The poet portrays a mysterious character:
‘she never carried a spare ounce of emotional weight’.


Tones

The tone at the start is matter-of-fact:
‘I remember this woman who sat for years
in a wheelchair’.

Sometimes the tone is admiring:
‘She was steadfast’.

Sometimes the tone is humorous and weird, as with the comparison of the woman’s forehead to the chrome of her wheelchair:
‘Her brow was clear as the chrome bits on the chair.’

Sometimes the tone is factual:
‘Straight out past the TV in the corner’.


Sometimes the tone is detached or blank:
‘sycamore trees unleafing and leafing’.

Sometimes there is a tone of wonder:
‘the field behind the hedge grew more distinctly strange’.

The tone develops in this poem from matter-of-fact to wonder.


Imagery

There are many thoughtful, dreamy or philosophical images. There are also factual images of the old lady and her rural setting. There are many contrasting [different] images. The images are balanced between imagination and reality.

Here are fifteen examples of factual images.
‘woman … wheelchair… sycamore … the lane.
TV…hawthorn bush…calves … wind and rain…acre of ragwort… mountain
the big window … the chair
well-braced gate…two whitewashed pillars
field behind the hedge’.

The picture of the gate is a very visual image, using four adjectives and indicating colour:
‘lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
between two whitewashed pillars’

Here are three examples of far-seeing or imaginative images:
‘sycamore trees unleafing and leafing …
Face to face with her was an education…
where you could see deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing focused ‘.

Heaney uses comparison images.
Heaney uses a comparison between the stare of the old woman and a memory of his own in order to state his main point in the poem. He compares the old woman’s gaze to his own trance or daydream as he stared into the countryside:
‘an education of the sort you got across a well-braced gate’.

He compares the woman’s forehead to the chrome of her wheelchair. He uses this image to show the old lady showed no sign of anxiety on her forehead. This simple comparison using ‘as’ is a simile:
‘Her brow was clear as the chrome bits on the chair’.

Heaney uses personification.
[Personification means to treat a thought or a thing as a living being]
Heaney refers to the hawthorn bush as ‘agitated’. ‘Agitated’ means nervous or troubled. A bush is not capable of being agitated or troubled like a person. Heaney could have used a more factual word here like ‘twisted’. But for Heaney, a word like ‘twisted’ or ‘bent’ was too factual and did not refer to the human state he wanted to mention. In this comparison, Heaney draws attention to the fact that the old woman is not agitated. The image creates a contrast with the old lady’s clear brow. Thus, you can see that Heaney adds a lot of human feeling and thought to his description of landscape.

Heaney provides an unusual image to signify the passing of time:
‘unleafing and leafing’.
Here he uses leaves to indicate autumn and spring. When leaves fall off trees in autumn the trees are ‘unleafing’ according to Heaney with this new word he made up. ‘Leafing’ simply means growing. Heaney made up this phrase to refer to the constant cycle of decay and growing in nature. He describes his aunt as someone who watches this cycle. He thinks she finds a deep meaning in it.

Heaney uses an unusual metaphor [comparison of two unlike things] when he states ‘she never carried a spare ounce of emotional weight’. Emotions cannot be physically weighed, like body weight. But the word ‘ounce’ compares depth of emotion to body weight. There is no such thing as weighing scales for emotions.


Sound effects

Alliteration [the repetition of first letters]
Note the four ‘w’ sounds in the first three lines. The ‘w’ connects the woman to the window and the wheelchair. She is thus anchored, unmovable, in her setting.
Likewise, note the ‘s’ sound at the start of six words in the second stanza. This repetition emphasises the word ‘small’
This is an example of sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sounds].

Assonance [repetition of vowels]:
Note how the monotony of the eight ‘a’ vowels reinforces the meaning in this quote:
‘The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain’.

Rhyming
There is no regular rhyming pattern in this lyric. The lack of rhyme is suitable for the main theme of education through vision. Rhyming dictates word choice and creates predictability. The visionary moment happens by accident, by avoiding a formula approach to life.

Cross Rhyme [a word or sound rhyming across two or more lines]:
‘unleafing
And leafing’.
Note the repetition of ‘same’ in the next quote:
‘The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
the same acre of ragwort, the same mountain’.
The second line of the quote is also an example of internal Rhyme
[Internal Rhyme is a word or sound rhyming within a line]

Rhythm
The rhythm has a natural feeling with the run on lines. This is reinforced by the lack of formal rhyming. The casual air is maintained by conversational words. Note the opening ‘I remember’.
The repetitions and the four and five beat lines of the poem give it a light formal rhythm. The dominant rhythm is the casual conversational manner. The poem feels like an anecdote, a personal story, a memory sincerely addressed to the reader.

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