Echoes of violence in a rural idyll revisited

A new Seamus Heaney poem

One of the last poems written by Seamus Heaney is published today for the first time. The Nobel laureate, who died on August 30th after a short illness, submitted In a Field to his publisher Faber last April. It will appear in a volume called 1914: Poetry Remembers, edited by the British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

Heaney took up her invitation to choose a poem from the first World War and respond to it with a poem of his own.

The poem that Heaney chose is As the Team's Head-Brass by the Anglo-Welsh writer Edward Thomas, who was killed at the Battle of Arras in April 1917.

It recreates a conversation about the war with a man who is ploughing a field with horses. Heaney's response to it, In a Field, picks up on a theme that his work often shared with Thomas's: echoes of violent events in an apparently idyllic rural setting. Like Thomas, Heaney recreates the sensation of a field being ploughed. As in Thomas's poem, Heaney then opens the rustic scene up to intimations of a distant war.

As well as responding to As the Team's Head-Brass, Heaney's poem seems also to capture a personal memory of his own childhood on the family farm at Mossbawn in Co Derry.

In his 2006 volume District and Circle, he recalled with great affection the sudden arrival on the farm of Mick Joyce, a Cork man who was married to Heaney's aunt Susan. Joyce was on leave from the British army in which he served as a medical orderly.

In To Mick Joyce in Heaven, the Corkman is seen in his "brass-buttoned drab" uniform as a "demobbed Achilles/ Who was never killer."

The new poem, In a Field, seems also to recall Joyce in his "buttoned khaki and buffed army boots". Those boots leave footprints on the freshly ploughed field. They are the marks of the larger, adult world on the closed circle of childhood. Joyce takes him by the hand and leads him back into the yard where multiple unidentified figures are "all standing waiting".

In the context of Thomas’s poem, and even more poignantly now in the light of his own death, it is possible to imagine those figures as the dead.