A Constable Calls Poem by Seamus Heaney Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


Famous Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote his powerful and thought-provoking poem “A Constable Calls” in the 20th century. In a rural environment during the Troubles, the poem tackles issues of power, authority, and societal divisions. The poem depicts the anxiety and vulnerability felt by people under the authority figure’s watchful eye as a constable arrives at the poet’s home. Heaney explores the complex issues of identity, belonging, and the fight to maintain a sense of self through vivid imagery. 

About the poet

Irish poet, dramatist, and translator Seamus Justin Heaney won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature. He was a well-known poet in Ireland, best known for his first significant book of poetry, Death of a Naturalist (1966). In 1996, Heaney, a professor at Harvard and Oxford, was appointed a Commandeur of the Order of the Arts and Letters. In addition, he received two Whitbread Prizes, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, the PEN Translation Prize, the Golden Wreath of Poetry, and the T. S. Eliot Prize. In Bellaghy, Northern Ireland, he died and was put to rest at St. Mary’s Church, where his gravestone had the inscription “Walk on air against your better judgement.”


Stanza 1

His bicycle stood at the window-sill,

The rubber cowl of a mud-splasher

Skirting the front mudguard,

Its fat black handlegrips


The speaker of the poem depicts the constable officer’s bicycle in these lines. The front mudguard of the bicycle is covered by its rubber mud splasher as it is set on the window sill. The poem describes the bicycle in vivid detail, referring to its “fat black handlegrips.”


The poem switches its attention from the constable to his bicycle to emphasize the significance of small things in the context of his unexpected and invasive visit. The positioning of the bicycle on the window sill points out the constable’s proximity to the house, emphasizing his authority. The bicycle’s “rubber cowl of a mud-splasher” refers to its practicality and draws attention to the constable’s authority and weight. In contrast to the family’s carefree attitude, the constable’s “fat black handlegrips” represent his power and seriousness. 

Stanza 2

Heating in sunlight, the “spud”

Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,

The pedal treads hanging relieved

Of the boot of the law.


The speaker describes the constable’s bicycle in the sun in these lines. The bicycle’s dynamo, which produces energy to power the lights, is seen as shining ready for the ride. The bicycle’s pedals appear to be hanging loosely, as though unburdened by the weight of the constable’s authoritative presence.


These lines focus on the constable’s bicycle, focusing on its well-kept appearance in sunlight. The constable’s sparkling dynamo and “cocked back” posture imply that he is prepared to carry out his responsibilities, while the pedal treads’ “hanging relieved” contrasts with the earlier description of the bicycle, where it was parked at the window-sill. The constable’s double roles as an ordinary person who rides a bicycle and a representative of the law and authority are symbolized by the bicycle, which represents both the ordinary and the authoritative elements. The constable’s complicated character and job are captured in these detailed specifics, which give the relationship and its effects on the family a complex nature overall.

Stanza 3

His cap was upside down

On the floor, next his chair.

The line of its pressure ran like a bevel

In his slightly sweating hair.


In these lines, the speaker notices the constable’s cap upside down on the floor next his chair. The constable’s sweating hair has an impression from the cap that is known as a “line of its pressure.”


These lines delve into the character and influence of the constable in his house. The upside-down cap on the floor suggests informality and calmness as if the constable had momentarily relaxed his guard in this domestic setting. The constable appears to frequently wear the cap based on the “line of its pressure” in his hair, and the indentation is the result of the cap’s tight fit on his head. The “slightly sweating hair” of the constable may represent the sense of worry or uneasiness he introduces into the house or the physical exertion of his duties, such as patrolling the neighborhood and enforcing the law. By concentrating on these apparently unimportant elements, the poet develops a vivid and personal portrait of the constable, giving him a human aspect and increasing his relatability.

Stanza 4

He had unstrapped

The heavy ledger, and my father

Was making tillage returns

In acres, roods, and perches.


In these lines, the constable had detached a heavy ledger, probably a record-keeping book or official document. Meanwhile, the speaker’s father is busy documenting land measurements in acres, roods, and perches.


The poem highlights the difference between the father’s agricultural work and the constable’s formal duties. While the father’s engagement in tillage returns indicates his function as a farmer or landowner, the constable’s large ledger represents the bureaucratic and authoritative aspects of his employment. While “returns” refers to measures and records of cultivated land, such as acres, roods, and perches, “tillage” refers to the process of preparing land for farming. This points out the father’s connections to the land and his livelihood in agriculture. The contrast between the constable’s official, legal sphere and the speaker’s family’s rural, agrarian way of life serves to further stress the subject of authority and power. The use of precise measurements like acres, roods, and perches adds to the rural setting and sense of location in the poem by demonstrating the father’s relationship with nature and the work that keeps their lives intact.

Stanza 5

Arithmetic and fear.

I sat staring at the polished holster

With its buttoned flap, the braid cord

Looped into the revolver butt.


The speaker in these lines describes sitting and staring at the constable’s shiny pistol holster. The reference to “arithmetic and fear” refers to the speaker’s tension and uneasiness during the constable’s arrival.


The presence of the constable conveys the speaker’s uneasiness and fear, with the speaker examining the situation and being aware of power dynamics. The polished holster of the constable, along with a buttoned flap and braid rope looped into the pistol butt, radiates professionalism and discipline and portrays a figure of law enforcement. The distinction between authority and vulnerability is highlighted by the contrast between the constable’s official, authoritative environment and the speaker’s exposed feelings. The symbolism of the revolver adds another layer of meaning since it is a weapon of force and power, suggesting the possibility of violence or the misuse of power by people in positions of control. This supports the poem’s focus on the themes of authority and control.

Stanza 6

“Any other root crops?

Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?”

“No.” But was there not a line

Of turnips where the seed ran out


The constable in these lines asks about other root crops, such as mangolds or marrowstems, but the speaker’s father responds that there aren’t any. The father, who seemed reluctant, mentions a line of turnips where the seed ran out.


The constable asks about the farm’s production, particularly regarding additional root crops such as mangolds and marrowstems. “No,” the father said, implying that the farm does not grow root vegetables like mangolds or marrowstems. The farmer’s unease or fear in the presence of the constable, who represents authority and likely the law, maybe the cause of the father’s hesitation, which is indicative of a turnip that has run out. Turnips can also represent the undone duties on the farm and unplanned events. The constable’s persistent questioning and the father’s hesitating answer add to the poem’s tension and discomfort. The father’s anxiety shows that he may feel scrutinized or under observation. The constable’s visit appears to be an official inspection.

Stanza 7

In the potato field? I assumed

Small guilts and sat

Imagining the black hole in the barracks.

He stood up, shifted the baton-case


In these lines, the speaker sits and imagines the dark hole in the police barracks while taking on small guilts. The constable moves the baton-case while standing up, maybe demonstrating his authority or readiness.


In the presence of a constable, the speaker’s nervousness and guilt are discussed. They assume “small guilts” and sit, displaying fear and nervousness. Due to the constable’s intimidating attitude and the scrutiny they feel in his presence, the speaker may project guilt upon themselves. The line “Imagining the black hole in the barracks” emphasizes their concerned state of mind by referring to a police station’s confinement section. The speaker’s imagined viewpoint on this area hints to worry about probable repercussions or punishment. The constable’s actions, which represent power and control, such as adjusting the baton-case, increase the sense of tension and uneasiness in the setting. This, together with the speaker’s imagined “black hole,” increases the fearful and intimidating mood.

Stanza 8

Further round on his belt,

Closed the domesday book,

Fitted his cap back with two hands,

And looked at me as he said goodbye.


The constable finishes adjusting his outfit in these lines by closing the “domesday book” (perhaps a reference to his official records), putting his cap back on with two hands, and then turning towards the speaker as he bids farewell.


In the poem, the constable’s actions imply that the visit has come to an end. He signs off on his official duties and wraps up his inspection of the speaker’s property by closing the “domesday book,” an old record of land and property ownership. The constable was holding his cap back with two hands, which may be seen as a sign of professionalism or preparation while also reinforcing his position of power. The tension is increased by the constable’s gaze when he bids the speaker farewell because it makes them feel uncomfortable and afraid. The constable’s departure is not a warm or casual farewell, but rather an acknowledgment of his presence and power. 

Stanza 9

A shadow bobbed in the window.

He was snapping the carrier spring

Over the ledger. His boot pushed off

And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.


The constable’s shadow is observed through the glass in these lines. He may be working on the heavy ledger he was previously adjusting the carrier spring over. He then pushes off with his boot, and as he goes away on his bicycle, the sound of its ticking can be heard.


The lines depict the constable leaving his house after finishing his duties as a policeman. The constable’s lingering presence of power and control is emphasized by the shadow’s bobbing movement in the window, which represents movement and departure. The constable marks his completion of the job by snapping the carrier spring over the ledger. The bicycle’s carrier spring denotes the constable’s ready to go and proceed to his next task. The constable’s slow withdrawal from the scene is suggested by the ticking sound of the wheels, which adds to the sense of departure. The ticking noise can also be interpreted both literally and symbolically as a metaphor for the passing of time and the diminishing of the constable’s influence.