farmer's wife with wheat and bread

The Wife’s Tale

Introduction

Seamus Heaney’s “The Wife’s Tale” is a dramatic monologue told from the perspective of a farmer’s wife who has prepared lunch for her husband and his labourers. While the other men begin to eat, he praises her efforts, commenting the meal “looks well”. The husband then asks her to inspect the “good clean seed” even though she does not “know what to look for”.

Since the speaker is more familiar with the domestic world, she defines their work through frightening imagery of war, such as comparing their “forks” to “javelins” in “lost battlefields”. Her husband expresses his satisfaction with the “yield” because there is “enough for crushing and sowing both”. At the end of the poem, the speaker “folded up the cloth” and leaves the “grateful” men who are “smoking” and at “ease” in a “ring of their own crusts and dregs”.

This brief glimpse into rural life presents the relationship between the wife, who quietly accepts her duties, and her gently teasing husband. The gender roles they perform make them archetypes of a traditional way of life which is neither celebrated nor condemned by the poet. The reader can form their own opinion of the scene.

Seamus Heaney Reads The Wife’s Tale

The Value of Work

The speaker is not directly involved with the harvesting so she tries to define the labour in her own words. For instance, in the first verse, she compares the threshing machine to a hungry animal devouring their fodder. Instead of referring to the “straw” stuck against the metallic edges of the hopper, which is used to funnel the crop into the “drum”, she mentions the cuttings “hanging” outside the machine’s “jaws”.

This comparison is reinforced by her description of the noisy engine’s “hum” and “gulp”. These onomatopoeic words are usually associated with an animal chewing and swallowing food.

She continues the extended metaphor in the third verse when she inspects the “half-filled bags”, which are still “hooked to the slots”, and describes how the sacks “gaped”. The “chutes” channel the “good clean seed” from the threshing drum down into these open sacks, but she thinks they resemble the wide-open mouth of a ravenous animal eagerly waiting to be fed.

These images are particularly appropriate because her role is to supply the men with food and drink, so it is not surprising she defines their work in terms of eating. By linking her domestic chores with the men’s labour, Heaney equates the two types of work and suggests both are valuable despite the husband’s dismissive “boys like us have little call for cloths”.

The Spectacle

Seamus Heaney believed this poem “gets something right about man/woman companionship and contesting”, so let’s consider the rivalry between the two protagonists.

The phrase “spread it all” in opening of the poem immediately suggests the wife has put a lot of effort into preparing and presenting the lunch. Her husband seems pleased with her efforts, saying “that looks well”. She then “buttered the thick slices” of bread because that is what he “likes”. Notice how Heaney emphasises her actions through the rhythm and sounds of these particular lines:

He winked, | then watched | me as | I poured | a cup
And butt | ered the thick | sli-ces | that he likes.

For instance, you can almost hear the flick of the knife against the bread his use of /t/ and /k/ because they are both stops – you have to build up pressure by stopping the airflow with your tongue before releasing the air to create these two sounds. The rhythm formed by the consonance and assonance in “slices” and “likes” also helps the line mimic her movement.

Finally, Heaney echoes the sound of the tea being poured through the lovely combination of the gliding vowel sound in “poured” and how /p/ is repeated in “cup”.

Try reading the sentence again and you should hear the stress fall on these sounds – you might get a better sense of what the poet was trying to achieve. Importantly, the lyrical quality also draws our attention to her self-conscious performance. She knows she is being “watched” and she is creating a spectacle for her husband to enjoy.

He is also aware he his delivering his own piece of theatre, demanding the attention of his audience by the way he lies down, tosses “handfuls” of grass into the air, and talks to his wife. The wink just confirms he is a terrible actor.

There is also the spectacle of the wife’s “inspection” of the harvest. Despite the fact she doesn’t “know what to look for”, she still examines the “half-filled bags” to satisfy her husband’s desire to display his success.

It is worth mentioning the repetition of “look” in the second verse and the alliteration of /w/ in “winked” and “watched”. By focusing on the theme of spectacle in “The Wife’s Tale”, Heaney raises questions about their relationship and her role as an object for the spectator’s gaze. She is the nameless wife.

The Representation of the Husband

The husband is certainly pleased with the harvest, telling the speaker “It’s threshing better than I thought” and the men are gathering “good clean seed”. He believes the “yield” is substantial enough for “crushing” into flour and for “sowing” the next crop. It is important to note farming in Ireland is challenging because the weather can be unpredictable, so the husband probably feels a sense of relief when he is “plucking grass” and “tossing it in the air”.

However, there is an unlikeable smugness in his demeanour, epitomised by the way he “winked” at his wife in the second verse while dismissing her efforts. Consider the speaker’s comment that her husband is “as proud as if he were the land itself”. Does she share his pride? Or does she resent his arrogance? The comparison is ridiculous and the use of parenthesis suggests her tone is scornful.

His Instructions to give “these fellows” their food first because he is “in no hurry” is an obvious attempt to show off his tough masculinity. The performance also shows he is aware of his authority on the farm. He then positions himself as one of the “boys” who is not afraid of working the land and has “little call for cloths”. Ironically, mentioning the linen cloth draws attention to their symbol wealth and status. Although he is trying to make a light-hearted joke, the alliteration of /k/ in “call” and “cloths” sounds contemptuous.

The image of the husband gently teasing his wife might impress his labourers, but it will not impress the reader.

Structure

“The Wife’s Tale” is a dramatic monologue written in blank verse. Although she remains nameless and we learn very little about her identity, the form of the poem does give her a voice. This is important because she seems to be silenced by this masculine world.

Similar to an old script, a rhyming couplet signals the end of the scene. Heaney uses the conclusion to emphasise the social and emotional distance between the wife and the men – she “went” while “they still kept their ease”.

The Wife’s Burden

The line “always this inspection has to be made” suggests the wife has performed this function before and expects to do so again next harvest season. This idea of going round in circles can be found in other images in the poem. For example, the “big belt” spins around the wheels of the threshing machine and the drum rotates quickly to separate the grain from the spikes.

The men “lay in the ring of their crusts and dregs”, symbolising her position as the outsider in this routine, and the grain is “hard as shot” which makes it suitable for “crushing” into flour to make the “thick slices” of bread she will end up buttering next year.

Of course, the speaker “spread” the lunch on the “linen cloth” at the start of the poem and then she “gathered cups and folded up the cloth” at the end. She also walks to the machine and then walks “back across the stubble”. Note how the word “stubble” is used at the end of the first and third verses. She is back where she started.

Sadly, the cycle motif suggests she will never escape this rut.

Thought Tracking

When you are watching a performance on stage, you can read the actors’ thoughts and feelings through non-verbal codes, such as body language, gestures, and facial expressions. Since “The Wife’s Tale” is a dramatic monologue, you should try to imagine her movements around the field and track her thoughts. Here is an example of a student’s map of the different beats in the scene.

diagram of the scene in The Wife's Tale
Thought Tracking “The Wife’s Tale”

Think carefully about how she feels at each moment. Compare her feelings at the start of the poem to its conclusion because this process might help shape your understanding of “The Wife’s Tale”.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Who is speaking in the poem?
  2. Why might it be significant that she remains nameless?
  3. How does Heaney present the thresher like a monster in the first verse? Why does he compare it to a beast?
  4. Once the machine is quiet, the speaker can hear ‘their boots / Crunching the stubble twenty yards away’. Why might this detail be important?
  5. Look at what the husband says and does in verse two. What do we learn about his personality and socio-economic background?
  6. How does he treat his wife?
  7. Why does he want her to inspect his work?
  8. What is your opinion of the man?
  9. Why is it important that he speaks in the poem but the wife does not?
  10. What does this say about the power of poetry?
  11. In verse three, the speaker examines the seed. What words and phrases suggest the work is masculine?
  12. Why is it significant that the men ‘lay in the ring of their own crusts and dregs’?
  13. How does the speaker suggest that her husband is ridiculously self-satisfied in lines twenty-eight to thirty?
  14. Look at lines thirty and thirty-one. How does the speaker feel at this point?
  15. Following on from question twelve, why is it significant that the speaker ‘gathered cups and folded up the cloth’?
  16. How does the speaker feel when she looks back and sees that the men ‘still kept their ease’?
  17. The poem is written in blank verse. However, why does it is with a rhyming couplet?
  18. What point is Heaney making about wives in society?

Further Reading

If you are comparing “The Wife’s Tale” to one of Robert Frost’s poems, it is worth noting Seamus Heaney thought the themes of “marriage, vigilance, rural setting”, and “work customs in the field” were very similar to the American poet’s work. He also believed the “cadence” was “Frostian”. Perhaps you could analyse “Mowing” because it too the challenges of working the land.

Learn More

Thanks for reading!