The poem is from ‘Singing School’. The poet describes an event when a constable comes to visit his father, to record information about his farm.
The poem is based, perhaps, on an experience of childhood of Heaney himself. The Catholics of Northern Ireland or Ulster were an oppressed minority under the British rule. The poem narrates the visit of a constable to a family for some routine inquiry. But this routine visit casts horrible and fearful effects on the child and the other members of the family. This is the kind of fear in which the Catholics of Ireland are living.
The Main land got freedom in 1952 and it became a republic but that part of Ireland which is attached to the Main land England and is called Ulster, remained under British control. Irish are Roman Catholics while English are Protestants.
Ulster is the home of Irish but it has been largely occupied by settlers from England and Scotland. They dominated the economy of Ulster and even distorted its culture. The Irish feel very sore about it. Besides, there have been violent clashes between the Catholics and the Protestants. The Catholics have been reduced to a minority in their own land. Also, the British government, and its forces, too, are on the side of Protestants. So there have been big massacres of the Catholics in Ireland in 1920 and 1970.
The Massacred are the Catholics and they are the oppressed. Aparthited (the division between black and while) is very sharp in Ulster. Heaney thinks that poets should not meddle in politics. On the other hand the situation of Ireland demands an active role from him. This creates a sense of guilt in him. This sense of guilt has been presented in the poem ‘A Constable Calls’.
The poem is based, perhaps, on Heaney’s childhood experience. It is about state terrorism and guilt conscious. Heaney has taken a very ordinary and routine simple situation and has turned it into some thing bizarred and monstrous. The poem tells of some government official, perhaps an excise inspector who has come to a farm house to collect data about the crops. The very arrival of the constable is seen as something sinister. The situation is very much like that prevailing in our own society where the arrival of a constable at some house creates a kind of panic not only for the inmates but also for the neighbours.
Everything related to the constable assumes a weird (horrifying) look. The bicycle itself appears like a monster threatening the house with “flat black handlegrips”. The narrator is a child. It is perhaps some childhood experience of Heaney himself. He looks at the cycle as if some strange creature has come from the outer space. The ‘spud’ of the dynmo, the cocked back and the paddles each detail is minutely noted by the frightened child. The authority is symbolically describes as the “boot of law’.
The constable is not threatening at all. He is quite at ease. He has put his cap upside down on floor. The impression created by the cap on his hair is visible. He takes out a heavy ledger from his bicycle. The child’s father starts making entries of the land and its various crops. The father is busy in calculations and entries while the child is watching the whole scene with some unknown fear troubling his mind. He particularly looks at the butt of the revolver the constable carries.
Perhaps the fear is that there might have not been any mistake and the constable might detect some wrong entry or some entry which has been missed. He makes a routine inquiry and suggests that something have been left out.
The child immediately thinks of punishment. He fears that his father might be arrested. Black holes of barracks come before his eyes. However the constable is doing his duty in a simple routine way and his approaches very business like. He holds out no threats but to the child his heavy ledger looks like a doomsday book. He is quite courteous too and says good bye to the child.
The horror of the situation is further deepened when a shadow like figure shows a glimpse in the window. The suggestion is that the anxiety has haunted the whole house and it was perhaps the child’s mother who was watching from behind the window. The constable quietly puts his things back and rides the bicycle which goes with the sound of ticked, ticked, ticked as if it was some time bomb.
The poem gives an impression of an oppressive fear and a sense of guilt associated with that fear. Guilt and fear are prominent features of the poetry of Heaney. This poem is an allegory as well. The constable is on some investigation. A young child is looking at him. This is Heaney’s childhood experience. Heaney has been experiencing the miseries of his own family and of the Irish since his childhood. There is a state of tension. He sees something sinister in the bicycle. He believed, in a sense, that the constable is not a man. He was a symbol of terror. The chid is only looking at the books, at the cap and at and machine which are the images of terror, which have been settled down in Heaney’s childhood consciousness. The child is terribly frightened. It is a very beautiful poem of fear, mixed with an unknown sense of guilt.
‘Any other root crops’?
The constable is questioning; he is inquiring. It is an allegory of fault finding by the authorities and an allegory of fear and guilt. This fear and this sense of guilt have become a routine for the Irish. This kind of sinister visit is a routine matter. To the constable it is just a routine, but to the poor Irish grower it is a menace. So there is a sense of menace also. Menace and sense of guilt have been combined in the poem.
Official business appears to the people as a doomsday business. The constable is just doing his duty. The menace is inside. Fear has found a deep root in the people’s hearts. Everybody is tense; the father, the child, the mother.
The bicycle “ticked, ticked, ticked”—like a time bomb. So they live under a perpetual fear. Unknown, unexpected fears and uncommitted crimes haunt their minds.