I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about hay bales, Heaney and what to do before the sun sets.
Two days ago I rose at 3.45 am and drove fifty miles to fish the Yorkshire Esk which weaves its way through the North Yorkshire moors. As the sun rose across Great Fryup Dale, what struck me was the legacy of this glorious summer; the hay has been baled and stands in golden cylinders, field after field.
Walking the river’s edge, the gilded landscape reminded me of Heaney’s poem “The Baler”, from his last collection, Human Chain. All aspects of Heaney’s art are there in this poem: his rural roots; the exactness of his observations; his economy of language; the apposite mythical allusions; the profundity beneath his understatedness. The shift in the last two stanzas is so subtle, you only grasp its seismic import after you have finished reading.
It is a poem for a man like me, who grew up in a house surrounded by hayfields, who spent his formative summers making dens with heaveable brick-shaped bales, who is in the August of his life – well beyond half-way – and who is wondering how on earth to spend his time before the sun sets. How did it get so late so soon?
All day the clunk of a baler
So taken for granted
It was evening before I came to
To what I was hearing
And missing: summer’s richest hours
As they had been to begin with,
And nearly rewarded enough
By the giddied-up race of a tractor
At the end of the day
Last-lapping a hayfield.
But what I also remembered
As woodpigeons sued at the edge
Of thirty gleaned acres
And I stood inhaling the cool
In a dusk eldorado
Of mighty cylindrical bales
Was Derek Hill’s saying,
The last time he sat at our table,
He could bear no longer to watch
The sun going down
And asking please to be put
With his back to the window.