Seamus Heaney/The Bogman

Published on Thursday, January 13, 2011

Seamus Heaney/The Bogman By Adnan Lermontov

Introduction: Seamus Heaney's devotion to the earth (ground), in his early poems, with no surprise, indicates that in the future, he will be fascinated by the Bog and the Bog Bodies. Earth is not only the surface; it is the depth as well. Ireland offers him green hills and lush vegetations, rivers and creeks, history and myth, and solitude to contemplate on these elements. But his interest and fascination is much deeper than that. In the Death of a Naturalist (1966)1, he uses what the earth could offer him, in many forms, to get to the meaning of it all. He is interested in the most basic, in the most primitive, in the most fundamental. Being an Irish also means to be part of its long troubled history of religion and politics. If one tries, one could avoid it for a certain period of time, but one cannot avoid it forever. Heaney is not a political poet, but the Bog and the Bog Bodies offer him a language, a set of metaphors that he could use, and finally address the history of Ireland from a political/religious point of view. He needed to understand the myth of the ancient in order to comment on the troubles of the present, and he found that in the Bog world.
If he keeps digging the earth, he knows he will reach the fire, the annihilation; but he is not a poet of the nihilism, he is an optimist. He ends one of his early poems, Mid-Term Break, with a single line standing alone, carrying the rest of experiences of the poem, where he was trying the make sense of his brother's death, measuring space and time, "A four-foot box, a foot for every year." He does not want this sorrow to end life. Life goes on, but one is free to contemplate. In time, Heaney creates the Bog Poems. Bog Poems are Bog itself, and the messages hidden in it are the Bog Bodies. This is the perfect metaphor for Heaney that he can depend on to comment on the politics, religion, and violence of Ireland. Heaney's take on these subjects are not light or straight-forward, by commenting, he creates another chapter, another layer of interpretation, hope, and challenge. He creates a Bog like world within himself, and ultimately becomes the Bogman. Heaney celebrates the earth and its offerings in the Death of a Naturalist (1966). He wants to sleep on the ground, and taste the summer's color and juice. He sees everything through nature's eye, and the connection of earth is always present. But he feels an echo of dark and dank Bog like world deep within him. It is as if, the echo is waiting to come to the surface like the Bog Bodies. He feels an urge to "dig" the earth, not like an archeologist, but through poet's consciousness and language. In the verses below, from the Death of a Naturalist (1966), it is noticeable that the Bog and the Bog Poems are waiting, beneath the surface, to be dug up. What is required is "digging". What made Seamus Heaney is "digging." It is through "digging", he becomes the Bogman. "When I lie on the ground

I rise flushed as a rose in the morning." (Antaeus)

"Summer's blood was in it Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking." (Blackberry-Picking)

"I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss." … "I rhyme To see myself, to set the darkness echoing." (Personal Helicon)

"I wanted to grow up, and plough, To close one eye, stiffen my arm. All I ever did was follow In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling, Yapping always." (Follower)

"By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man." … "But I've no spade to follow men like him. Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I'll dig with it." (Digging)

Heaney himself contemplates, "I have always listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies come out of a bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery."2 For Heaney this is where the poetry comes from. It is an answer of the origin of poetry. For a poet this is a big step. Poetry is like consciousness, it is associated with the depth of human psyche and the Bog and the Bog Bodies provides him the metaphor he needs to explore his past, Irish history and myth. Through the Bog Poems, Heaney tries to understand the historical and geographical connection between the Ulster and the Bog People. Ulster is one of the four provinces of Ireland, which is linked with the English aggression toward the Ireland. The connection that Heaney tries to find between the Northern Ireland and the Northern Europe is not a simple one. It is about the kinship, historical loyalty, integrity, courage, and perseverance.3 Heaney is a poet, not a political commentator. But as an Irish, he definitely feels the pressure to comment on the Irish political events. Whatever he says, he will say it through art first. He might end up saying more than a prose writer, but he will keep his message enveloped in layers of interpretation. In this exploration, the following six Bog Poems are concentrated on: Bogland, The Tollund Man, Bog Queen, The Grauballe Man, Punishment, and Strange Fruit. Bogland: The poem Bogland starts with the word "We". It is a very different tone from the "I" in the Death of a Naturalist (1966). Perhaps, for so long, the people of Ireland wanted to hear him talking politics through his poetry. Therefore, it is an opportunity for Heaney to connect himself with the rest of his people, history, and myth of Ireland. He tries to explain to the rest, that he understands what they do not have, they do not have it together; but what they do have they share it together also. Therefore, there is a connection between the rest and him. With them poem he sets the expectation. This is his attempt to unify himself to the rest, and to find solidarity. The layering "crusts" symbolizes different periods of Ireland, which is hidden from its own people. It is expected that the movement from layer to layer will be through "digging". It is also a layer of his creative powers. In different layers or episodes of his life, he concentrates on something else, but in this episode he is political, not directly, but the message is hidden in the depth of his consciousness, in the essence of his poetry. "We have no prairies To slice a big sun at evening-- Everywhere the eye concedes to Encroaching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye Of a tarn. Our unfenced country Is bog that keeps crusting Between the sights of the sun." (Bogland) The layering "crusts" are the only connection between the present and the past. The Bogland is also associated with the womb of the mother-earth, and the womb is associated with the creation. Memories are buried in the Bogland, but the memories are not destroyed entirely, and it is being revealed to the present. Memories are the Bog Bodies. It is something real, not imaginary. Therefore, the creating continues, and this creating is not meaningless, but with deep meaning.

"They've taken the skeleton Of the Great Irish Elk Out of the peat, set it up An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under More than a hundred years Was recovered salty and white. The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot, Missing its last definition By millions of years. They'll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks Of great firs, soft as pulp." (Bogland) Then the desire to "dig" begins, with the full understanding that the "digging" may never end. Here he doesn't take the responsibility of digging. It is the Pioneers that are doing the digging, of which he is part of, but he separates himself from it. He sees each stripping layer as a page from history, from which much to be learned, much to be extracted. Heaney does not write poems that shoot straight. If one wants to, one must work hard to find the authentic root, which is hidden in the Irish myth and history, in the past. For him the Bogland not only offers the span, but the depth (wet center is bottomless) also. In this land, he finds himself busy "digging" for meaning, forever. "Our pioneers keep striking Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip Seems camped on before. The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. The wet centre is bottomless." (Bogland)

The Tollund Man: Heaney admits, "The Tollund Man seemed like an ancestor almost, one of my old uncles, one of those mustached archaic faces you used to meet all over the Irish Countryside. I just felt very close to this. And the sacrificial element, the territorial religious element, the whole mythological field surrounding these images was very potent. So I tried, not explicitly, to make a connection between the sacrificial, religious element in the violence of contemporary Ireland and this terrible religious thing in The Bog People".4 The body of The Tollund Man is naked, but there is a cap, a noose, and a girdle, and the stomach is full of winter seeds. All these are signs of ritualistic sacrifice. Why would there be "caked" seeds in the stomach? The word "caked" indicates many seeds. Heaney sees the seeds in his stomach from a layered (caked) point of view as well, just like the layered crusts of the Bog, full of meaning, each layer has something new to offer. The Tollund Man is a political victim, linked with the political and religious violence of the contemporary Ireland. But the poem is about a journey and contemplation as well. The physical and the spiritual journey is a metaphor for the "digging". Ultimately, it is an attempt to get to the essence. Here the truth will not be hidden forever, it will wait and resurface. The victim will have the last say. Some day I will go to Aarhus To see his peat-brown head, The mild pods of his eye-lids, His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by Where they dug him out, His last gruel of winter seeds Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for The cap, noose and girdle, I will stand a long time. Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him And opened her fen, Those dark juices working Him to a saint's kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters' Honeycombed workings. Now his stained face Reposes at Aarhus. (The Tollound Man) This death is a religious sacrifice. The truth about it, if exposed, could be blasphemous. "Blasphemy" is a term associated with religion. Heaney understands the gravity of the crime of revealing the truth, but he is taking the risk anyway. The Tollund Man strengthens himself from the land he lives on, and he comes back to tell the tale. It is a resurrection of a kind. It is a journey, not only for The Tollund Man, but also for the Irish people. Heaney even thinks that it looks like an ordinary Irishman; therefore, all Irishman is The Tollund Man. Through The Tollund Man, history comes back to undo the wrongs of the past. Heaney connects the poem with the Irish political martyrdom and the massacre of four young brothers in Ireland.6 I could risk blasphemy, Consecrate the cauldron bog Our holy ground and pray Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed Flesh of labourers, Stockinged corpses Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth Flecking the sleepers Of four young brothers, trailed For miles along the lines. (The Tollound Man) The Tollund Man becomes the history itself, and a stranger in an unknown land. Hinting that messages of the past is here, but it cannot communicate itself because it doesn't understand the language of the present, or the present doesn't understand it. A hint of confusion? A Plea? There is a sense of alienation, isolation here. But it is optimistic. The Tollund Man can wait, until the language is understood. Heaney can wait too, since he doesn't rage through his poem. He is patient, he is hopeful that the people of Ireland will remember their past histories and myth. He would like to remain a Bog like figure, until he is understood, like The Tollund Man. To understand him, reaching the depth is required, which is "digging". Heaney is not offering any easy interpretation, no easy freedom. Something of his sad freedom As he rode the tumbril Should come to me, driving, Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands Of country people, Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland In the old man-killing parishes I will feel lost, Unhappy and at home. (The Tollound Man)

Bog Queen: It is the body talking, reciting the history. Whose body? This is a poem about the geography/map to the body (Ireland), due to the English aggression. Body speaks here, tells the tale. It is not a tale of sadness, but a story of the rise as well. It is a rise from the depth. It is the rise of the masses. The decay of the Queen's body is like the decay of the Irish past, history and myth. No one likes the decay of one's body. It is intolerable. Heaney is asking the Irish people to rise from the decay, like the Queen. He is asking the people to go back to their past, and see its beauty, and learn, and gain strength, and rise. Perhaps the time has come, to gain the strength from the long Irish history, and rise to claim the dignity. He is trying to say that the strength lies in the history and myth of Ireland. Yes, the body is decaying, but there is still hope, there is still dream, and the body is waiting. By waiting, the body is calling everyone to rise up, calling everyone to wake up. I lay waiting between turf-face and demesne wall, between heathery levels and glass-toothed stone.

My body was braille for the creeping influences: dawn suns groped over my head and cooled at my feet,

through my fabrics and skins the seeps of winter digested me, the illiterate roots

pondered and died in the cavings of stomach and socket. I lay waiting

on the gravel bottom, my brain darkening. a jar of spawn fermenting underground

dreams of Baltic amber. (Bog Queen) The Queen's body tells how it is treated (like Ireland by the English), but it survives to rise again in order to bring the violence of the past for everyone to see. The violence cannot be erased, once it is marked. Queen's message is about helping a nation to rise up, and build on what is destroyed. It is about hope, it is about solidarity. It is rebellious, but without it, freedom may never come. The Queen is beautiful, like the myths of Ireland, like the people of Ireland. She is been tortured, murdered, but the torturers and the murderers are lost in time, but the body of the Queen survives, like the people of Ireland. Therefore, true, that much is lost, but still there is much to gain. It is a very hopeful poem. Optimism is its jewel. If one is willing to "dig", one will gather strength from it. Bruised berries under my nails, the vital hoard reducing in the crock of the pelvis.

My diadem grew carious, gemstones dropped in the peat floe like the bearings of history.

My sash was a black glacier wrinkling, dyed weaves and Phoenician stitchwork retted on my breasts'

soft moraines. I knew winter cold like the nuzzle of fjords at my thighs––

the soaked fledge, the heavy swaddle of hides. My skull hibernated in the wet nest of my hair.

Which they robbed. I was barbered and stripped by a turfcutter's spade

who veiled me again and packed coomb softly between the stone jambs at my head and my feet. (Bog Queen) The body is free (no more English brutality) now, to rise, and so it does, as a symbol of a new revolution, in order to undo the wrongs of the past. It is broken, tattered, shattered, but it is rising. There is no giving up. There is no losing. No matter what the current condition is, the survival is in the revolution. The Queen says, "I rose from the dark/ hacked bone." Queen's rise is not a very stable one, a shaky one indeed, but it is a rise, and much is promised here. If the Queen could rise in this condition, then why can the people of Ireland not? It is Heaney's way of challenging his countrymen to be extraordinary in front of the historical injustices. Remember, and rise, is his message. Remembering is an act of "digging". Till a peer's wife bribed him. The plait of my hair a slimy birth-cord of bog, had been cut

and I rose from the dark, hacked bone, skull-ware, frayed stitches, tufts, small gleams on the bank. (Bog Queen)

The Grauballe Man: The Grauballe Man is an artistic description of a body, compared with the landscape. In the beginning, the body is compared with the tar, as if it is the same, which is directly connected to the ground. His spine is compared with the eel. But it is about life's brutality as well. There is a slashed throat, and it is connected to the others. No one knows the crime of the Grauballe Man, like many others in Ireland that are sacrificed. The last line, "slashed and dumped", is arresting, and is connected with the street violence of Ireland.3 The word "dumped" gives no respect to the dead. This complete disrespect gives hint of the revenge and revolution. It is not just a corpse. It is not just a body. It is a symbol of a newborn, a new beginning. Heaney sees the atrocity as something beautiful as well, from the point of view of the Irish resilience. He wants to believe that like him, the rest of the Ireland is preserving their memories of the past and learning from it. The memory is not lost. It is there. The memory is the savior. Maybe the memory is buried, beneath the atrocities, but if one "digs", one will get to it. Heaney will not stop "digging", and he expects or urges everyone to do the same. As if he had been poured in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf and seems to weep

		  the black river of himself.
	                 The grain of his wrists
		  is like bog oak,
		  the ball of his heel

		  like a basalt egg.
		  His instep has shrunk
		  cold as a swan's foot
                                            or a wet swamp root.

		  His hips are the ridge
                                and purse of a mussel,
                                           his spine an eel arrested
                                           under a glisten of mud.

		The head lifts,
		the chin is a visor
		raised above the vent
		of his slashed throat

		that has tanned and toughened.
		The cured wound
		opens inwards to a dark
		elderberry place.

		Who will say 'corpse'
		to his vivid cast?
		Who will say 'body'
		to his opaque repose?

		And his rusted hair,
		a mat unlikely
		as a foetus's.
		I first saw his twisted face

		in a photograph,
		a head and shoulder
		out of the peat,
		bruised like a forceps baby,

		but now he lies
		perfected in my memory,
		down to the red horn
		of his nails,

		hung in the scales
		with beauty and atrocity:
		with the Dying Gaul
		too strictly compassed

		on his shield,
		with the actual weight
		of each hooded victim,
                                          slashed and dumped.
							(The Grauballe Man)

Punishment: She is murdered, by the gang, but she can still tell her tale. She can still feel. She can still see. The past of Ireland is not too far from the present, if one tries, the wound is still there to see. She is sunk, beneath the memory, but the layer of the Bog saves her. She is a scapegoat. She dies because of adulterous act. But she is alive, almost standing there, in real flesh, for everyone to see, "… the wind/ on her naked front./ It blows her nipples…" There is a sense of questioning the justice itself in this poem. Who is guilty? Of what crime? And who determines it? It is about the "guilty feeling" as well. It is a message to the Irish people to be careful of their own deeds, and their treatment of their own country people. This poem seems to be about the shifting of perspective. The punisher could be punished, if not physically, but by "guilty feelings." In Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity, Floyd Collins, notes, "Heaney takes the poetics of self-accusation and self-implication further…"7 It is about taking the responsibility of one's own wrong doings. Before one looks at the outside, one must look within, and this implies "self-digging." I can feel the tug of the halter at the nape of her neck, the wind on her naked front. It blows her nipples to amber beads, it shakes the frail rigging of her ribs. I can see her drowned body in the bog, the weighing stone, the floating rods and boughs. Under which at first she was a barked sapling that is dug up oak-bone, brain-firkin: her shaved head like a stubble of black corn, her blindfold a soiled bandage, her noose a ring to store the memories of love. Little adultress, before they punished you you were flaxen-haired, undernourished, and your tar-black face was beautiful. (Punishment) Heaney "almost" loves her. Yet he stands dumb, even when he is sympathetic toward her. At once he understands her and the punishers. He is outraged, yet he understands the exact and intimate tribal revenge. This sounds contradictory, but there are the world laws, and the laws of the local. And the difference between them is civilization. He is optimistic that the world will be saved, but in the meantime people will be sacrificed. Future can be saved, but not the present. And he is willing to trade the future with the present. It is a tough call. But a fair call. The bystander is not Heaney, it is all of us. Heaney is willing to take the criticism, knowing that it is just another layer within him. He is Bogifying himself. He is the Bogman, he knows it. In order to get what he wants, he must sacrifice something. And it is a matter of courage and bravery. Her punishment is also connected with the World War II history of France and Spain, where the women who went to bed with the enemies, after the war were tortured and killed by their own country people in the public arena. People often forget that because those women went to bed with the enemies, perhaps many more women were saved from the enemy's sexual aggression and rape. It is about revenge, but not necessarily against the enemy of the outside, but against the enemy that resides within. It is a "beware who you punish" kind of a warning. My poor scapegoat, I almost love you but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence. I am the artful voyeur of your brain's exposed and darkened combs, your muscles' webbing and all your numbered bones: I who have stood dumb when your betraying sisters, cauled in tar, wept by the railings, who would connive in civilized outrage yet understand the exact and tribal, intimate revenge. (Punishment) Strange Fruit: This is a Sonnet about the head of a beheaded girl. A form poem in front of such horror! Heaney is calm here. He is not in any hurry. It is just an event from the history. There is no myth here. This is a ritual death, and it is strange in a sense that there is a history of violence, but it doesn't evoke it, the body is missing, the soul is missing. Just the head is here to bare the witness. Ireland can't survive without its past, its history, which is like its missing body. Surviving without the root (body) is meaningless. If there are any feelings of strangeness, awkwardness in the consciousness of Ireland, it is because its body is missing. Heaney urges his countrymen to go back to their roots, and find the meaning, to move forward. And one goes back to the root by "Digging." Here is the girl's head like an exhumed gourd. Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.

		They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair
		And made an exhibition of its coil,
		Let the air at her leathery beauty.
		Pash of tallow, perishable treasure:
		Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod,
		Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings.
		Diodorus Siculus confessed
		His gradual ease with the likes of this:
		Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
		Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
		And beatification, outstaring
                  What had begun to feel like reverence.

(Strange Fruit) Conclusion: Are the Bog Poems enough for Heaney to comment on the Irish struggles? Is the message clear enough? Did he do enough "digging"? He is the most prominent poet in Ireland, and poets are associated with telling the truth throughout the history. But being political means taking sides. Does he want to take any side? To him the only side he could be on is on the side of humanity. Above all, he is an artist, a poet; he needs to be at the center to see it all. And it means he needs to go against the conventions at times. It is a question of fairness, and that is all. He wants to understand the world, every event, every character. He is not rushing; he is like the Bog, collecting the layers of time. He is the Bog itself. Dianne Meredith agrees, "Heaney's rich vocabulary for earth terms which include mud, mould, silt, slime, slicks, etc., all of which may be tied to different kinds of landscapes such as fens and bogs as well as to singular weather events and how they transform the earth's surface."8 Heaney's fascination of the Bog and the Bog Bodies, transformed him from a nature lover to the nature itself. The "I", from The Death of a Naturalist (1966), who once began "digging", returns to nature, by "digging", by creating the Bog Poems. And the Bogification of Heaney is complete. Heaney's journey as a poet began with a promise of "Digging", and he never stopped. In the Bog Poems, he creates another layer of himself. Instead of him alone "digging", finding, and offering all the treasures of the Irish past to everyone, he wants everyone else to "dig" with him, and be part of a journey, from where the rising of a new world will begin.

Works Cited

  1. Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996. New York: Farrar, Straus and Girous, 1998.
  2. Green, Carlanda. The Feminine Principle in Seamus Heaney's Poetry. NOTE: ".pdf" file can be found here:
  3. Lloyd, David. The Two Voices Seamus Heaney's North.
    NOTE: ".pdf" file can be found here:
  4. Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the pastoral Tradition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.
  5. Sirr, Peter. In Step With What Escaped Me: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney. NOTE: ".pdf" file can be found here:
  6. Sanders, Kiran. Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  7. Collins, Floyd. Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003.
  8. Meredith, Dianne. "Landscape or Mindscape? Seamus Heaney's Bogs." Irish Geography, Volume 32(2) (1999): 126-134.
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