2 The BarnThis poem, like Death of a Naturalist, is a memory of the past. It is about Heaney’s experience of working in a barn when he was much younger. Heaney uses vivid similes and imagery to bring the barn to life. It has an almost supernatural feel and, by the end of the final stanza, a real sense of dread and danger.
3 Subject and Themes Farm life Danger Fear Imagination Vulnerability Nightmares – childhood fears
4 Threshed corn lay piled like grit of ivory Or solid as cement in two-lugged sacks. The musty dark hoarded an armoury Of farmyard implements, harness, plough-socks.Opens with two similes – ‘grit of ivory’ suggests something valuable;‘cement’ suggests heavinessthreshed – the corn has been harvested‘two-lugged’ – repeated at end – two handles like ears – bringing object to lifemusty – a stale or mouldy smellhoarded – the word means stashed away – suggests hidden trerasure is in the barnlist of threearmoury – implies the barn’s contents of farmyard implements are war-like
5 cold, uninviting imagery The floor was mouse-grey, smooth, chilly concrete. There were no windows, just two narrow shaftsOf gilded motes, crossing, from air-holes slit High in each gable. The one door meant no draughtslike a prison – the purpose of Heaney’s imagery is to make us experience the claustrophobiagilded motes – a mote is a speck of dust. Gilded means to have the quality of gold. You can visualise two narrow strips of dust through the slits in the barn walls highlighted in the sun from outsidehot, uncomfortablegable – the triangular area at the top of the barn
6 All summer when the zinc burned like an oven All summer when the zinc burned like an oven. A scythe's edge, a clean spade, a pitch-fork's prongs:Slowly bright objects formed when you went in. Then you felt cobwebs clogging up your lungssimile – the zinc is the metal that the tools were made of – you can imagine the heat in the barnlist of three – maintains the steadyrhythm of the poemsibilance - the ‘s’ sound in these words emphasises the potential for danger‘you’ – addresses the reader directly – Heaney wants us to feel part of the experiencealliteration on ‘c’ – emphasises a particularly unpleasant feeling of claustrophobiaadverb ‘slowly’ drives the poem forward
7 the verb ‘scuttled’ associates with the spiders – a need to escape And scuttled fast into the sunlit yard - And into nights when bats were on the wingOver the rafters of sleep, where bright eyes stared From piles of grain in corners, fierce, unblinking.moves poem forward – a sense of restlessnessnightmarish – it is only in the dark when the barn reveals its true menace. Choice of vocabulary shows how determined whatever lurks in the darkness really is‘rafters of sleep’ – a metaphor – image of the barn follows the narrator into sleep
8 The dark gulfed like a roof-space The dark gulfed like a roof-space. I was chaff To be pecked up when birds shot through the air-slits.I lay face-down to shun the fear above. The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats.simile – emphasises the enormity of the darknessmetaphor – chaff – inedible parts of the corn – the narrator is nothing better than feed for the birdstries to block out the horror he imaginessimile - poem ends with moment of real terror – continues the nightmare theme – like a horror film – the sacks are rats coming to get him
9 Links with other poems… Most obviously links with ‘Death of a Naturalist’ as both poems deal with Heaney’s fear of nature and the ways in which the ordinary can become threatening or evil. The sacks of corn ‘move in like great blind rats’ just as the frogs become ‘great slime kings…gathered for vengeance’. We get the sense from all of Heaney’s poems in the anthology (except for ‘Mid-Term Break’, perhaps) that the childhood experiences of agriculture were not happy times for him or he was unable to fit in with them.
10 Hints and TipsThis is a reasonably easy poem to understand and has a number of key images and techniques that you can write about. Unfortunately, it does not link very easily with most of the other poems, although ‘Death of a Naturalist’ would certainly be a good one. You could also link it to the idea of memories which is also depicted in ‘Miracle on St. David’s Day’, ‘Follower’, ‘Digging’, “Mid-Term Break’, ‘At Grass’, ‘An Unknown Girl’ and ‘Once Upon A Time’.
11 Example QuestionsLook again at the poems ‘The Barn’ and ‘Death of a Naturalist’. What do these poems reveal about the imaginations of the childhood Heaney?‘The Barn’ is a poem about memory. Choose another poem from the anthology which also focuses on memory and compare the ways in which they are depicted.