The Barn Threshed corn lay piled like grit of ivory Or solid as cement in two-lugged sacks.

The musky dark hoarded an armoury Of farmyard implements, harness, plough-socks. • He describes what he sees (‘threshed corn’) using a simile to show its fineness, ‘grit’, and colour ‘ivory’. Its heaviness he expresses in ‘solid as cement’, an assonant simile which introduces an image which he uses in the powerful terrifying conclusion, ‘two lugged sacks’. We are used to plastic or pressed paper sacks but these would be knotted so that the top corners stood up like ‘lugs’, ears. He can smell the dark (‘musty’) and he personifies it as hoarding all the old tools of the now mechanised farm of the 1940s and 1950s. He uses a military metaphor (‘armoury’) to refer to the ploughing implements. He uses colour (‘mouse-grey’), touch (‘smooth’) and alliteration (‘chilly concrete’) to describe the unwelcoming barn floor. The lack of windows adds to the atmosphere, though in a contrasting beautiful image he remembers the dust as ‘gilded’, touched by gold by the sunlight from the high narrow slits – note the adjectives. Only one door implies a feeling of being trapped, but in a run-on line it also meant ‘no draughts’ so that the summer’s heat made sure the roof ‘burned like an oven’, a powerful simile. But in the darkness he could see ‘ bright objects’ which took shape (‘formed’) as his eyes adjusted. These are farm hand tools, a scythe, a spade, a pitch-fork, though there is menace in the sharp nouns ‘edge’ and ‘prongs’. He uses the pronoun ‘you’ as though to invite us to share his memory or to put the fear he felt at the remove by avoiding ‘I’. The word ‘then’ signals the limits of his endurance; he escapes, but as yet he has described nothing terrifying. He uses alliteration and hyperbole in a striking metaphor ‘cobwebs clogging up your lungs’ to express his inability to breathe in an atmosphere he found claustrophobic. He uses the colloquialism ‘scuttled’ to describe his ‘fast’ undignified rush to reach the yard which is ‘sunlit’ in contrast to the barn. It was in nightmares that the barn had the power to terrify him. Just as the bats must have flown at night in the rafters of the barn so they fly through his troubled sleep and in the nightmare barn ‘bright eyes stared’. Though he does not say here to what the eyes belonged, Heaney as a child feared rats. The adjectives ‘fierce’ and ‘unblinking’ add to the sense of menace he felt. In the final verse he describes how the dark ‘gulfed’, using the noun ‘gulf’ as a verb to express how overwhelmingly huge the darkness felt to the boy he used to be. The simile ‘like a roof-space’ emphasised this and reminds us of the barn which caused these awful dreams. Suddenly he uses ‘I’ as though the memory intensifies and uses a metaphor – himself as ‘chaff’, the corn husks left after threshing, at the mercy of the birds which ‘shot through the air-slits’ (he must have seen birds do this often in the real barn). To avoid this air-borne terror he ‘lay face-down’ to ‘shun’, avoid and escape that ‘fear’. The last line provides a powerful climax – in his nightmare the innocent sacks of the first verse become part of his morbid fear of rats and they ‘moved in like great blind rats’. The final simile uses two adjectives to express their size and sightlessness which does not prevent them from moving in, no doubt, for the kill. The poem is full of telling detail acutely observed and a variety of images to express how he felt in the barn and how those feelings combined with his terror of rats became the awful substance of his nightmares as a child. Note how Heaney runs on verses two and three (enjambement) and the change from ‘you’ to the much more powerful ‘I’ as the memory takes hold.

The floor was mouse-grey, smooth, chilly concrete. There were no windows, just two narrow shafts Of gilded motes, crossing, from air-holes slit High in each gable. The one door meant no draughts All summer when the zinc burned like an oven. A scythe's edge, a clean spade, a pitchfork's prongs: Slowly bright objects formed when you went in. Then you felt cobwebs clogging up your lungs

And scuttled fast into the sunlit yardAnd into nights when bats were on the wing Over the rafters of sleep, where bright eyes stared From piles of grain in corners, fierce, unblinking. The dark gulfed like a roof-space. I was chaff To be pecked up when birds shot through the airslits. I lay face-down to shun the fear above. The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats. Seamus Heaney

Structure and Form • Five verses, each of four lines. The lines part-rhyme alternately and each line has the same number of syllables, ten.

Comparative Ideas

Compare Heaney’s fear with Sylvia Plath’s fear of old age as she expresses it in Mirror. In that poem it is a thing – a mirror that embodies her worst nightmare the terrible fish of old age. Then you might look at Warning – no fear there, just joyous anticipation and a desire to shock!

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