This is one of my favourite Seamus Heaney poems. It’s from his 1969 collection, Door into the Dark. I think the key to understanding the poem is the Eleusian mysteries practised by the ancient Greeks. The man in the poem is basically giving the role of the corn goddess, Demeter, to the woman, though she doesn’t know it. It’s a measure of how much he loves her but she is mystified.
I think a knowledge of the Classics helps to understand much of Heaney’s poetry.
The Wife’s Tale
By Seamus Heaney
When I had spread it all on linen cloth
Under the hedge, I called them over.
The hum and gulp of the thresher ran down
And the big belt slewed to a standstill, straw
Hanging undelivered in the jaws.
There was such quiet that I heard their boots
Crunching the stubble twenty yards away.
He lay down and said, ‘Give these fellows theirs,
I’m in no hurry,’ plucking grass in handfuls
And tossing it in the air. ‘That looks well.’
(He nodded at my white cloth on the grass.)
‘I declare a woman could lay out a field
Though boys like us have little call for cloths.’
He winked, then watched me as I poured a cup
And buttered the thick slices that he likes.
‘It’s threshing better than I thought, and mid
It’s good clean seed. Away over there and look.’
Always this inspection has to be made
Even when I don’t know what to look for.
But I ran my hand in the half-filled bags
Hooked to the slots. It was hard as shot,
Innumerable and cool. The bags gaped
Where the chutes ran back to the stilled drum
And forks were stuck at angles in the ground
As javelins might mark lost battlefields.
I moved between them back across the stubble.
They lay in the ring of their own crusts and dregs,
Smoking and saying nothing. ‘There’s good yield,
Isn’t there?’ –as proud as if he were the land itself–
‘Enough for crushing and sowing both.’
And that was it. I’d come and he had shown me,
So I belonged no further to the work.
I gathered cups and folded up the cloth
And went. But they still kept their ease,
Spread out, unbuttoned, grateful, under the trees.