seamus heaney - bog poems

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Heaney’s Bog Poems


Heaney’s early poems can be seen as fundamentally concerned with childhood, and with the horrors as well as the wonders of nature, drawing the reader into a world full of "the smells/of waterweed, fungus and dank moss", to look into places where ‘there is no reflection’ – poetry which is also an exploration that aims ‘to set the darkness echoing’.

This fascination with the hidden secrets of the earth takes another direction in the bog poems, which utilize a metaphor begun in Bogland, but with a different, more intense focus, as the land itself seems to come alive, revealed as the source of mystery and power.

Heaney has noted that writing at the time of the Troubles meant that "the problem of poetry moved from a matter of finding the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to predicament."

In the bog people, victims of tribal sacrifice, the poet seems to have found such images, and develops the metaphor in drawing parallels with the political and social situation in Ireland. This connection to the past allows him to comment on the present in an oblique yet forceful way.

However, this does not imply that Heaney’s poetry necessarily became entirely political. Critics have pointed out that his work is less an ideological statement than an effort to generate historical awareness, and that while his themes contain both resistance and defiance, they do not make an active political statement. Instead, he speaks about political ideas through his description of the land, the use of mythology and history and the religious atmosphere, the images of prejudice, violence and intolerance. His pastoral style uses images of rural Ireland to suggest greater universal ideas. As one critic has said "Heaney staked out the boundaries of his poetic, devoting himself to excavations of his chosen land."


The earliest bog poem, appropriately entitled Bogland, is more nationalistic and more about the essence of Ireland than the later poems, which are more deeply concerned with mythical associations, with the connection between violence and religion.

The beginning of the poem sets the nationalistic tone clearly as the possessive pronoun ‘we’ is used more than once, to convey a sense of unity with the land. In the first lines "we have no prairies/To slice a big sun at evening", what is ostensibly a negative statement of absence is turned into a positive assertion, as Heaney speaks of "our unfenced country" and "encroaching horizon".

At the same time the poem emphasizes the layers of the land, layers of history ‘bog that keep crusting’ in continuous expansion, so that the land seems to stretch forever, endless in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. The bog is in layers, each layer a page of history, yet like the encroaching horizon, it at first reveals nothing, seems a statement of absence.

The poem establishes the bog as the source of all Irish memory and ancestry, linking the present to the past through the constancy of the land, as "butter sunk under/more than a hundred years/ was recovered salty and white". The ground conserves rather than destroys, not the realm of fire but of water "they’ll never dig coal here/only the waterlogged trunks of great firs". The land is "itself...kind, black butter", revealing it’s secrets as it is "melting and opening underfoot."

This brings in the motif of digging and exploration, "our pioneers keep striking/Inwards and downwards" which again in the use of the word ‘pioneers’ connects to America, while it relates to a tradition of Irish poets to the diggers, bringing treasures to light.

The poem ends with a reference to something greater, to Northwest Europe, perhaps the seed of the myth of the North in the later bog poems. There is a suggestion of a continuous enrichment, as "every layer they strip/seems camped on before", emphasizing again the metaphor of the bog as history, the memory of the landscape.

The ‘Atlantic seepage’ and ‘the wet center’ is a reiteration of an earlier point "they’ll never dig coal here" the earth is preserving and not consuming, but this is connected to a larger pattern here, in an exploration attempting to find a core, a final center but conceding that this center is ‘bottomless’.

The poem conceives the past as a dimension to be explored dynamically rather than simply received, constructed from a drive to establish a connection between forces shaping a nation’s consciousness. At the heart of the poem, beyond the overlapping of the past and present, is the timelessness of nature.

Tollund Man

The Tollund Man is a poem that promises a pilgrimage: "Some day I will go to Aarhus". In the first few stanzas the tone is expectant, determined, yet at the same time the future tense is an indication of the remoteness of the poem from the time it speaks of. While the poem never wanders in conviction, there is an element of foreignness and distance, which is reinforced by the place names ‘Aarhus’, and later ‘Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard’.

The Tollund Man is unnamed. The pilgrim will go "to see his peat brown head"; he goes to worship, in a way, yet the tone remains impersonal. The Tollund Man is passive, his eye-lids "mild pods". A victim, the action of the poem relates not who he is but what is done to him, and in the end he "reposes" in "sad freedom". The Tollund Man, like the girl in Punishment, is portrayed as a scapegoat for society’s crimes and ignorance.

The Tollund Man’s own journey begins when "they dug him out", destroyed and elevated at the same time. The meticulous observations of the narrator are again, detached, "his last gruel of winter seeds/caked in his stomach" yet also emphatic, emphasizing vulnerability "naked except for/the cap, noose and girdle" the remains of a ritual death.
The pilgrim makes a respectful promise to "stand a long time", but the action itself is passive, promising not to move.

The last line of this stanza "bridegroom to the goddess" takes on a more ominous, forceful tone as the bog itself is personified and equated to Ireland, female and overwhelming "she tightened her torc on him". The language indicates the powerlessness of the victim in the face of greater, unfathomable powers, but at the same time metaphorically insists on his quasi-divinity, worked "to a saint’s kept body", bringing in religion and relating it to violence and ritual death. The Tollund Man becomes almost, a surrogate Christ. He is left to chance, "trove of the turf cutters" and finally resurrected until at last "his stained face/Reposes…"

The poet links religion with the ordering of violence or sacrifice in order to bring peace again in comparing "the old man killing parishes of Jutland" with his own land.

The second part of the poem suddenly becomes more emphatic after the stillness of the previous line "reposes at Aarhus" as the narrator says "I could risk blasphemy". Again here, religion is directly connected to violence but this time the pilgrim says he could "consecrate the cauldron bog/our holy ground". Religion derives it’s power from the land, as the land demands sacrifice, a 'bridegroom’, to whom the pilgrim will "pray/him to make germinate". Deriving his power from the land which turned him to a saint, the Tollund Man as victim, is linked to the "four young brothers", to whom he is both kin and saint, to "flesh of labourers" and "stockinged corpses". His paradoxical survival and repose should, the poem implies, give him the power to raise others. At this point, the language is both bleak and harsh, and can be interpreted as an impotent longing to obliterate the wrongs of the past, attempting to see this resurrection as redemption from violence, but seeing only the similarities of a ‘ritual’ of death, uncontrolled and meaningless.

The last part of the poem returns to the quiet beginning, but here, instead of determination and looking forward, there is sorrow and despair, a sense of isolation which is linked to language. The pilgrim insists that the ‘sad freedom’ of the Tollund Man "should come to me…/saying the names" yet showing that ultimately exile means "watching the pointing hands/ of country people/not knowing their tongues" as language is defined as the root of culture, of nationality. Along with religion, and a sense of history and myth, language is central to Heaney’s poetry, and here the idea of isolation is brought sharply to the reader through the idea of being ‘lost’ in a foreign land, yet ultimately the paradoxical nature of exile is realized, the poet realizes that he feels at home in a state of homelessness, and welcomes the feeling of being lost, of not belonging to society, a sort of ‘sad freedom’ he shares with the Tollund Man, no longer tied to religious forces. The poem ends in a statement which describes both the isolation and empowering sense of exile: "I will feel lost/unhappy and at home".

Bog Queen

Bog Queen is a story of decay, describing processes the body has been through until found and excavated. It is different from the other bog poems in that the body speaks: "I lay waiting." There is a sense of restraint here, creating suspense. The body lies "between heathery levels" suggesting an overgrown world, nobility rotting.

"My body was braille" creates a vision of communication between the body and the land, "the creeping influences". In a sense the process of decay can be read as symbolic of Irish history, and the degradation of Irish culture as a result of English intervention: "the seeps of winter/digested me, the illiterate roots/pondered and died". Still the body speaks "I lay waiting" enhancing the reality of her strange existence, yet also asserting that she remains undefeated. She is not destroyed, rather she is altered, made part of the land, "brain darkening/ a jar of spawn" hinting at new beginnings.

She is a frozen, preserved work of art, described meticulously in icy images, her sash "a black glacier", the winter cold "like the nuzzle of fjords".

All this is described in slow, deliberate language, ‘waiting’. Yet, like in Tollund Man, the tone grows more forceful towards the end, as she describes "the wet nest of my hair/which they robbed". This again might be read as relating to English interference, as the body says "I was barbered/ and stripped/ by a turfcutter’s spade". Her discovery is a matter of chance. Here, the clipped language brings a sense of anger which in the last stanza turns to triumph "and I rose from the dark", evoking her past and glory. With the rising of the body, Heaney offers a hope for the rise Irish cultural identity and nationalism.

A detailed, vivid account of a woman given an opportunity to speak, telling her strange existence between the world of life and death, the poem is also, on the metaphorical level, related to incarnation of goddesses who demand sacrifice, related to the feminsation of the land in Tollund Man, and perhaps to the image of a Mother Ireland calling for new sacrifices.

Her excavation elevated to the level of a rising, a metaphoric connection to the theme of invocation in Tollund Man, yet not a resurrection because she had never died.

The Grauballe Man

One critic has noted that if Tollund Man is pilgrimage, Grauballe Man is arrival and the celebration of being there. Certainly, in this poem, there is a new standpoint, an immediacy that is apparent from the first. "As if he had been poured/ in tar he lies/on a pillow of turf/and seems to weep/the black river of himself."

He is at one with the turf, a vivid picture of the union between the land and the man, a metaphoric union. At first, the image is one of stillness, harmony, yet there is an edge of suspense as the language evokes a world dominated by dark colors, water, sorrow and sleep.

"The grain of his wrists/is like bog oak" begins a list like description of the exhibit, for this victim is not a victim but a work of art. There is no commentary on these images, human feeling and empathy are noticeably absent, leaving just an attempt to accurately define the beautiful horror the viewer seems to see. The body has been established as art, and the viewer describes it as such. There is less myth-making, the terror here, unlike Tollund Man, comes as the peaceful image of sleep is turned into a fearful picture of violent death.

The Graballe Man is not passive, there is nothing ‘mild’ about the way he is described, "the chin is a visor/raised above the vent/of his slashed throat".

It is here that the central point of he poem is made clear: "who will say ‘corpse’/ to his vivid cast?/ who will say ‘body’/ to his opaque repose?"

This has also been seen as the turning point for the use of the bog metaphor, as the poet makes us aware of the clash between myth and reality, beauty and atrocity. These lines are a rationale for the description, but they also ask us to question the work of art the poem constructs, as the actuality of terror asserts itself: "I first saw his twisted face/ in a photograph" and the idea of sublime art is undermined by reality. Yet "now he lies/perfected in my memory". The picture is a more balanced one, he is "hung in the scales/with beauty and atrocity", constructing a complex idea of sculpture, yet awakening also the ethical response, which is held back until now.

The poem ultimately addresses the issue of art as a reflection of life and can be read as arguing life is too strictly compassed' in art. The poem itself cannot reveal the full horror of life’s horrors, yet attempts to understand them, through it’s metaphors, returning in the end to reality as it climaxes in a terse expression of death "each hooded victim/slashed and dumped".


Punishment has often been described as the central point, the climax of the bog poems, as the Winderby Girl is a metaphor for Ireland. It begins with a focus on her body, describing it in anatomical detail on a level similar to Grauballe Man, yet this time there is a degree of empathy absent from the last poem. It is intensely personal, rooted in the senses "I can feel the tug/of the halter". The image of the "frail rigging/of her ribs" creates the idea of a ship in a storm, further reinforced by the next line "I can see her drowned".

The persona scrutinizes her into parts, an onlooker. She is sacrificed at the hands of oppressors, but still contains information about her culture, managing to preserve her identity despite the overwhelming cultural storm.

The next stanza begins a more violent image "her blindfold a soiled bandage" but the violence is softened "her noose a ring/ to store/the memories of love", as the description becomes more immediate, more emphatic, transformed to a lament of pity "my poor scapegoat". Heaney finds himself guilty however of remaining silent out of loyalty to the tribe. He says he "would have cast…/the stones of silence", as in Grauballe Man, as an artist, he is both part of the situation and outside it. "I am an artful voyeur" he both claims and admits, and in watching reality he remains an onlooker who has "stood dumb".

The girl is juxtaposed here to her "betraying sisters" (also a reference to France and Spain) "cauled in tar/wept by the railings". This cyclical view of history is typical of Heaney’s poetry; springing from a sense that past is present, in the sense of both here and now. In Punishment, the poem implies that the past functions as a scapegoat, taking the blame for social ills for which we are responsible. Yet we do not feel responsible because we do not feel it is our fault. The poet’s role, Heaney believes, is to redeem the past and make it live again. Thus, the past and the present become one, and the girl in ‘Punishment’ is reflected in her ‘betraying sisters’, as the poet uses the link between past and present to explore the darker aspects of the human experience from betrayal to death.

Ultimately, Heaney shows that in the face of "tribal, intimate revenge" it is difficult to speak out, though we "connive/in civilized outrage".

Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit, the last bog poem, is not only different in style it is also different in structure, written in sonnet form. It deliberately misses rhymes, its line length widely inconsistent, pointing towards the recognition of conclusion, deliberately breaking and failing patterns in the resolution of a long, complex metaphor.

"Here is the girl’s head" it begins, and in contrast to Punishment, it’s description emphasizes all that is repulsive. This girl is not likened to a ship withstanding a storm, or storing memories in a noose, but is "an exhumed gourd". She is constructed using images of plant-life, natural life, but nature here is never beautiful. She is "oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth" her broken nose "dark as a turf clod". The picture is not meant to mystify. This body is no more than a document of ancient violence. There is no indication of myth.

Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible,
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.

Heaney’s attempt to elevate the bog people to a mythic level is destroyed here, the final bog poem refusing to colour present violence with the hue of acceptability of rationality, finally asserting the meaningless of sacrificial or ritual death.


The political aspect of the bog poems is undeniable. Some critics such as Blake Morrison have seen this in a negative light, arguing that while "it would be going too far to suggest that the bog poems generally offer a defense of Republicanism" he sees them as a form of ‘explanation’ which according to Morrison "give[s] sectarian killing…a historical respectability".

Ciaran Carson’s critique takes a different direction, seeing that with the bog poems the poet became ‘the laureate of violence’ and "an anthropologist of ritual killing’ who seems to be "offering his ‘understanding’ of the situation almost as consolation…as if he is saying suffering like this is natural" so that it is as if such acts are removed to 'the realm of inevitability'.

However, it can also be argued that although Heaney’s work is full of images of death and dying, it is at the same time deeply rooted in life, endlessly metaphorical, it holds out an offer of endlessness, of cyclical history, of eternity. Heaney’s poems are ultimately peace poems, intensifying the sense of beauty in contrast to the horror of violence and the pathos of needless death.

written: 2004
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