The following poem by Seamus Heaney was written in memory of his cattle-farming father. He wrote it in 1986, two years after his father’s death, and four years after his mother’s.
The Ash Plant
He’ll never rise again but he is ready.
Entered like a mirror by the morning,
He stares out the big window, wondering,
Not caring if the day is bright or cloudy.
An upstairs outlook on the whole country.
First milk-lorries, first smoke, cattle, trees
In damp opulence above damp hedges –
He has it to himself, he is like a sentry
Forgotten and unable to remember
The whys and wherefores of his lofty station,
Wakening relieved yet in position,
Disencumbered as a breaking comber.
As his head goes light with light, his wasting hand
Gropes desperately and finds the phantom limb
Of an ash plant in his grasp, which steadies him.
Now he has found his touch he can stand his ground
Or wield the stick like a silver bough and come
Walking again among us: the quoted judge.
I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!
God might have said the same, remembering Adam.
Carol Rumens the English poet selected this poem as one of her weekly selections. The following is a link to her detailed exploration of the above text. See https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/may/23/poem-of-the-week-the-ash-plant-by-seamus-heaney.
Included in that discussion is the following paragraph –
Five solid quatrains, the wonderfully effortless ABBA half-rhyme, a firm pentameter beat, and the emphasised cadence of numerous feminine line-endings: these building blocks have and contain the density of the real world, but they signify more. The father in the poem is waking up after his death, “Entered like a mirror by the morning.” He is uncertain, a new shade, unmoored from life but not far beyond it, like a sentry “unable to remember / The whys and wherefores of his lofty station” (as a sentry’s ghost might be perplexed in a Northern Ireland of future ceasefire). Then “his wasting hand” finds “the phantom limb” of the Ash Plant and “… he has found his touch and can stand his ground”. It’s a lovely image that suggests a frail old man in his later years taking up his stick and, in that moment, finding his balance and becoming sure on his feet, as if recovering a younger body. The shade is transfigured, and, light-filled, he gains full authority. And once again the son gently smiles at the father and teases him as “the quoted judge” for his dry comment, “I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!”
I mention this in particular because the second line ‘Entered like a mirror by the morning’ caught my imagination as a wonderful metaphor for the new life of a ‘shade’. A mirror can never tell us who we really are but on death Heaney implies a walking through the mirror to an understanding of a new self from the other side of the mirror. And then he suggests the generation of a spiritual presence in on-going life as a ‘sentry’.
You can imagine Heaney’s Father in the top bedroom of an old farmhouse looking out over his life’s endeavour and being proud of what he has achieved over the years. The ‘damp opulence’ is an appropriate choice of words. Damp and Ireland are synonymous and opulence is such a good choice (compare to wealth). And here he is being reborn to this environment taking his first tentative steps from on high. It is interesting that he needs the support of the Ash Plant. Rod and Staff and Psalm 23 come to mind. But can he protect the future on the way the land will change as the years unfold. It would be somewhat poetic to think that he had some on-going influence as a ‘shade’.
I think there is a sense of humour in the statement – ‘I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!’. To me it implies that he could have done better. And to suggest that God could have done better is quite entertaining.
The literary significance of the Ash Plant is discussed in detail by Carol Rumens.
It is a very interesting poem showing Seamus Heaney had a somewhat mystical thinking on a resurrection and an after-life.