Fourth Edition, November 2011
258: Best Essays in Literary Theory
2nd Place Winner
Now and Then
by Angela Tieng
History is the study of a human past; but, for Ireland, history is not merely that. History is as much the living, breathing present. Ireland’s people are aware of their dejected “history,” which stares them in the face every day, anew. The violence and innumerable pains Northern Ireland has suffered at the hands of religious and political conflict, with both England and the Republic of Ireland, unfortunately, are still fresh and clearly visible. Collectively, Seamus Heaney’s “bog poems” reveal a single, vast metaphor; where the Tenor is all of the agony, physical and mental, and the vehicles are the bog people, as well as the bogs themselves. Heaney utilizes imagery and figurative language inspired by the bogs and other earthen materials to create a repetitious metaphor for a grounded, yet, constantly moving, deeply-layered history. Within the “bog poems,” and most of his other poetry,—“Heaney’s writing probes a nexus of connections between the poetic and the politic” (O’Brien 82).
When thoughts of Ireland cross my mind, I picture rolling green hills, sheep crossing narrow, winding roads and then, the bogs. Bogs are Ireland, in a sense—“We have no prairies/To slice a big sun at evening--/…Our unfenced country/is bog that keeps crusting/Between the sights of the sun” (“Bogland”, ll. 1-2/7-8). The bogs, alone, are so representative of life, and sustenance for the Irish—“For ages, peasants in search of fuel have cut blocks of peat from the depressions, to dry and later burn for warmth and cooking” (Glob ix). It would be unjust not mentioning the bogs themselves as a source of inspiration for Heaney’s “bog poems.” Not only above ground were the living kept alive with aid from the bogs, but beneath the ground, beneath the many layers, something else was kept “alive”—“for the Irish bogs may be thought of as openings into the dark of history…the central theme in several oh Heaney’s works was the literal repossession of the ground” (Parini 3). The bogs possess bodies and history, both of which were “repossessed” with the emergence of the “bog people.”
P.V. Glob’s The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved is an obvious source of inspiration for Heaney’s “bog poems.” Glob’s quixotic way of describing the exquisitely-preserved bodies that had emerged from the peat-bogs of Northwestern Europe had moved Heaney. Because of extremely high amounts of humic and tannic acids, in collaboration with the exclusion of oxygen, which prevents any bacteria from promoting decay, the peat bogs “can preserve bodies for millennia, often in remarkably good condition” (Glob ix). Ironically, the bodies were placed into the bogs to be “gotten rid of” and forgotten about; however, the bodies were, near perfectly, preserved. Evidence of their torturous demise was preserved as well. In fact, even details such as the contents of their last meal were preserved. The bogs were scientifically proven to be void of any oxygen, still, ‘life” was preserved. With this emergence of “life” from the bogs, a symbolic imprint of history also arose—“The selfsame forces set us in our mould:/to life we woke from all that makes the past./We grow on Death’s tree as ephemeral flowers” (Glob xvi).
It can be inferred that Heaney’s “bog poems” were woven together by a significant thread: the way the bog bodies facilitate the relationship between
the Iron-Age world of the bog people and the modern world of their archaeological reappearance…their peculiar capacity to compress time, bog bodies are exemplary mnemotopes and speak of a life anchored in an everyday that was then but is also now (Purdy 1).
Like Northern Ireland’s history, the bog peoples’ demise began a long time ago, but when the bodies were found, or “dug” up, they appeared remarkably preserved — to the point where details such as facial hair, or what meals they partook of were noticeable—“His last gruel of winter seeds/Caked in his stomach” (“Tolland Man”., ll.7-8). Archaeologically speaking, the bogs contain elements for successful preservation. In the following quote Heaney outlines how poetry is also a mechanism by which history is preserved:
Poems [are] elements of continuity, with the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants (Purdy 3).
Applying individual and lyrical methods to the application of history in the form of artful language posed a whole different problematic issue for Heaney and his poetry. As a child, Seamus Heaney was conditioned to be “emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence…mingled with the sounds of adult conversation…” (Heaney-Nobel Lecture 1). From an early age, Heaney consistently had to face the world from two different, warring angles: creativity and reality.
The crux of Seamus Heaney’s inspirations for the “bog poems” comes from an unrelenting battle he waged with his own self-identity as a poet, and the responsibilities he carried as a lyrical artist from Northern Ireland. When asked in an interview by Dennis O’Driscoll—“How should we regard a question like Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘What is poetry that does not save/Nations or people?’” Heaney replied by saying—“It’s a cry wrung from him in extremis, de profundis, the cry of the responsible human…betwixt and between them [those two positions]” (O’Driscoll 381). As a Catholic Nationalist residing in Northern Ireland during a time of deep troubles, Heaney’s situation challenged his lyricism to the limits. Anthony Purdy’s essay alludes to Eileen Cahill’s statement in “A Silent Voice: Seamus Heaney and Ulster Politics”—“Heaney clearly suffers the tension between his personal dedication to a reflective art and his public responsibility towards political action” (Purdy 4). Despite the risks of possibly being deemed a “blasphemer,” Seamus Heaney decided to push the limits with his writing. The character being spoken of in Heaney’s “Casualty” could possibly be a reference to himself—“But my tentative art/His turned back watches to:/He was blown to bits/Out drinking in a curfew/Others obeyed…” (36-40). The character alluded to in “Casualty” was being “disobedient” by staying out past curfew, though highly aware of the dangers that come about by doing so, he still proceeded to “rebel” for his individual selfhood was at stake. Nevertheless, he paid a heavy price for doing so.
Heaney did include political issues within the contents of his poetry, quite obviously at that; however; he did so in a way that makes readers pause and question their existence within the world they live in. Heaney alludes to this in the O’Driscoll interview—“poetry is like the line Christ drew in the sand, it creates a pause in the action, a freeze-frame moment of concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back upon ourselves” (383). Looking at “Punishment,” it can be noted that Heaney, or the speaker, was questioning his own position within the realm of responsibility as both a human being and a Catholic from Northern Ireland amidst the religious and political upheaval of the time. “Punishment” is a poem that depicts the brutal punishment of a young woman who was found guilty of adultery. With use of figurative speech, such symbolism and imagery, it can be said that Seamus Heaney felt deep sympathy for the girl—“I can feel the tug/…I can see you drowned,” almost as if he was right there with her as she was going through the torture (1-3). He also used an abundance of imagery to evoke the feeling of exactly what happened to her—“it blows her nipples/to amber beads,/it shakes the frail rigging/of her ribs” (2-5). This example suggests feelings of loneliness and solitude. The victim was, ultimately, alone in her demise. Her lover was not being brutally killed. She was given the blame, and severely punished for it—“My poor scapegoat” (28). Another example of strong imagery was the reference to the noose—“her noose, a ring/ to store/ the memories of love” (20-22). Instead of a literal ring of some sort to represent the “love” between the girl and her lover, what she now had to remind her of him was the noose around her neck: that was the memory for her to hold on to and remember him by. As the poem goes on, it can be noted that although the “voyeur” is apparently sympathetic, and wishes to have been of aid to the poor young girl, he knows that in reality, all he ever could have really done was watch from a distance. He starts by revealing how much he cared for her pain by using “love,” which is the epitome of strong feeling, as a metaphor for his strong sympathy—“I almost love you” (29). Then he goes on to say—“but would have cast, I know,/the stones of silence” (30-31). The speaker is fully aware that he would have, most likely, stood in the distance and mind his “own business.” He knows that it would be completely pathetic. The stones are a metaphor describing that the speaker’s silence was just as bad as the actual weapons used in the murder.
What these bog bodies represent to Heaney and Northern Ireland is a stamp of time, of history, a history of pain and hurt that will never grow old or “ancient,” but always remain new and sacred. In my interpretations, Heaney revered the “bog people” as royalty in the “bog poems.” For example, in “Bog Queen” the title alone refers to the woman as royalty, and within the poem, more “royal” references are mentioned—“My diadem grew carious,/gemstones dropped/ in the peat floe/like the bearings of history./My sash was a black glacier” (25-28). Another example of “royalty” or “saint-hood” of some sort is mentioned in “Strange Fruit”—“Beheaded girl, outstaring axe/And Beatification, outstaring/What had begun to feel like reverence” (12-14). Just as his poetry forever upholds history through the tests of time with language, so do “the bog people” with the everlasting impressions that their images leave on people.
Though Seamus Heaney admits that he will never have the skills as did his ancestors in regards to literal digging, he mentions in his poem “Digging” how he will uphold history and the legacy of all that Northern Ireland entails with his writing—“But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./Between my finger and my thumb/the squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it” (28-31). With his “bog poems,” Heaney continues to reveal a pattern of linguistic and cultural interaction, stemming from deeply-rooted history that continues to “breathe” and change with every word. The importance of this paradigm is emphasized in “A New Song”—“But now our river of tongues must rise/From licking deep in native haunts/To flood with vowelling embrace, Demesnes staked out in consonants” (30-33). Seamus Heaney’s “bog poems” continue to reveal the ground “repossessed,” which is what he had hoped for all along. The “bog people” characterized in his poems are the vehicles for the perplexing metaphor Heaney uses to reveal this “repossession” of the history of Northern Ireland that will never become a distant memory in the hearts and minds of his people.
Glob, P.V.The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. New York: New York Review
Books, 1965. Print
Heaney, Seamus. “Nobel Lectures-Literature 1995”.Nobelprize.org. 15 Dec 2010.
O’Brien, Eugene. Seamus Heaney: Searches for Answers. London: Pluto Press, 2003.
O’Driscoll, Dennis. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print
Parini, Jay. “Seamus Heaney: The Ground Possessed.” The Southern Review, Vol. 16,
No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 100-23. Infotrac.Contemporary Literary Criticism.
University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth Library, North Dartmouth, MA.
23 NOV. 2010. http://infotrac. Galegroup.com.libproxy.umassd.edu/itw/infomark
Purdy, Anthony. “The Bog Body as Mnemotope: Nationalist Archaeologies in Heaney
Tournier.”Style, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring 2002, pp. 93-110. Infotrac.Contemporary Literary Criticism. University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth Library,
North Dartmouth, MA. 23 NOV. 2010.
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