Bogland by Seamus Heaney

 

Commentary:

 ‘Bogland’ is the final poem in Seamus Heaney’s second collection Door into the Dark (1969).  The poem fittingly brings to a head his emerging, extended exploration of his rural upbringing and all the dying rural crafts associated with it.  It also signals to us that his interest in the Irish landscape is being brought into sharper focus.  The placing of the poem as his final offering in this, his second collection, is no coincidence and we must always be aware that the placing of poems by Heaney in his collections is never accidental.  The poem is a deepening and focusing of his early poetic efforts and it is seen as one of his most important early poems.  In it, the poet finally plucks up the courage to speak for Ireland and in its nine sentences the poem sets out new possibilities and directions for his future writing.

‘Bogland’ turns on a comparison between the American prairies and Irish bogs.  In America, the eye has an unlimited vista, its history immortalises those young men who went West to conquer the wild frontiers and in recent history, those intrepid explorers have continued to explore space as The Final Frontier!   However, in Ireland, the eye is drawn to features of the landscape which continually encroach on our view – here we live in a saucer island with mountains on the rim and ‘bottomless’ bog in the centre!  In America, as the poet sees it, the early pioneers (many of them Irish) moved West across vast empty spaces – save for the occasional presence of Native Americans, Sioux, Apache, Commanche, Arapaho and members of the Cherokee nation who were then being given salutary lessons in oppression and dispossession.  In Ireland, however, Heaney suggests that our pioneers (poets) explore downwards, cutting through the layers of bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’ (‘Digging’).  Therefore, from early on in his career (1969) he clearly identifies with the bog and by implication, he identifies himself as a Bogman and in this poem he finds his voice to speak on behalf of all Bogmen.

The word ‘pioneer’ has many connotations but here it suggests adventure and discovery – he seems to be suggesting that our pioneers are poets and that poetry is an adventure.  He also seems to be suggesting that the complex work of exploring our past and our complicated national identity is yet another such hazardous adventure.

The issue of Irishness or of not being ‘Irish’ enough has long bedevilled Heaney’s legacy – without great justification, in my opinion.  Heaney deals with the issue in these early collections and in Door into the Dark there are two outstanding examples: ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ and ‘Bogland’.   In reality, of course, he cannot win this argument and his position has been misunderstood by many.  It is the equivalent of our answer to the question, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’  In my reading, his poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing the Ulster of his youth apart.  His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of contemporary Ulster history.  Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides.  He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing.  For many critics, like Elmer Andrews[1], Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’.  However, surely in ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ (1966) and ‘Bogland’ (1969), he clearly steps up to the plate and is unashamedly ‘tribal’.

In these poems, Heaney steps off the fence and he takes sides.  For him, Bogland is synonymous with Ireland – just as many of the surrounding countries are also named, such as Iceland, England, Greenland, etc.  Indeed, other countries can have their uplands, and Lowlands and Highlands so why can’t we have our Boglands?  Because of his upbringing in rural Ulster, he is only too aware of the pejorative terms used to describe Irishmen such as ‘bogger’ or ‘bogman’.  That is why in this poem he embraces the bog and all its cultural nuances and he is proud to be associated with the bog and all that it represents for him.   He is aware that in Ireland’s recent colonial past the Irish were for centuries oppressed and confined to the bogs and uplands.  These boglands and uplands were also, therefore, the centres of resistance and traditionally the bogs were used as hiding places for weapons and bodies and where the Irish rebels, the Croppies, the pikemen of ’98, looked out like the snipe, the grouse and the pheasant, all the hunted, the marginalised, and all were fair game.

So here in Door into the Dark, Heaney is going deeper than he has already; in hurling parlance, he is ‘lowering the blade’.  He uses the first line from the poem ‘The Forge’ as the title for the overall collection of poems.  This sonnet celebrates the simple, everyday hard work of the local blacksmith, Barney Devlin, who daily undertakes the strenuous task of turning the rough metals into fine works of art and everyday utensils for the local farming community.    Barney’s ‘anvil’ is turned into an ‘altar’ which is set ‘somewhere in the centre’, ‘horned as a unicorn’.  Here Heaney touches upon God’s work, the artist’s work and a blacksmith’s work and weaves them together as in a garland. The sonnet is an analogy for the creative, poetic impulses which are gestating beneath the surface in Heaney’s subconscious.

One of Heaney’s famous poems in this second anthology is ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ which deals directly with an historical event of war and violence.  The terrible battle of ‘Vinegar Hill’ (1798), fought between Irish rebels and the English colonial rulers is the subject of the poem.   One major achievement of the poem is that it craftily conjoins the centuries of Irish violence and political struggle and achieves an organic, indeed germinal resolution: And in August the barley grew up out of the grave’.  Heaney himself gives an elaborate account of the composition of the poem, its historical and political relevance:

“[It] was written in 1966 when most poets in Ireland were straining to celebrate the anniversary of the 1916 Rising  ……   The poem was born of and ended with an image of resurrection based on the fact that sometime after the rebels were buried in common graves, these graves began to sprout with young barley, growing up with the barleycorn that the ‘ croppies’ had carried in their pockets to eat while on the march. The oblique implication was that the seeds of violent resistance sowed in the year of Liberty had flowered in what Yeats called ‘the right rose tree’ of 1916. I did not realize at the time that the original heraldic murderous encounter between protestant yeomen and Catholic rebel was to be initiated again in the summer of 1969, in Belfast, two months after the book was published” (Preoccupations, 56).

The poem’s patriotic fervour and humanitarian zeal are noticeable. The first person narrator is a rebel who has been killed and who hails their uprising as resurrection. The rebels may be killed, but the struggle for justice and liberty would continue.  Although on many occasions he is accused of remaining passive and detached from the cause of Irish independence, this poem is a fitting reply to this unjust criticism of Heaney.

In ‘Bogland’ Heaney reverses his approach and method of presentation. He gives up monologue and refuses to refer to any particular historical-political event.  Instead, he takes recourse to symbol, metaphor, allegory and myth. ‘Bogland’ stands as a metaphor for Ireland.  The poet speaks of a voyage ‘inwards’, and ‘downwards’.  This journey throws up many possibilities. The foremost, of course, is the journey back to the primordial Irish past, its folk history and myth.  The psychic residue or the racial memory of a great people is excavated through the inward journey of the poet. This inward journey may also suggest a spiritual exploration of a plundered nation. It is noteworthy that the poet uses the plural term for the great journey ‘inwards’ and ‘downwards’.   Through the extended allegory of ‘bogland’, the poet simultaneously lays bare the greatness and beauty as well as the suffering and agony of his motherland.

It is obvious that the poet has reflected deeply on the notion of bogs and he uses memorable images such as the Great Elk and bog’s ‘black butter’ to capture (or recapture) his own childish sense of wonder.  This is akin to the elation the poet feels when he excavates a poem from the bog of memory.  The bog is generous in that it preserves and returns the past to us, in the form of ordinary, domestic gifts:

Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The bog with its watery element is soft and accommodating:

The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot.

‘Bogland’ is, therefore, a seminal poem in which Heaney opens himself up to new possibilities, and he delves deeper into the bog of autobiography and history.  The bog contains the history of the island:

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

Therefore, in this way, the bog acts as the memory of the Irish race.  To dig the bog, by ‘striking inwards and downwards’, is to search into the bottomless centre of Irish history.  Although not stated explicitly here (as he does in ‘Digging’, for example), it is clear that the action of digging the bog is seized on by the poet as a symbol of his work as a poet.  The landscape of the poem, therefore, is both the natural landscape of Ireland but also a cultural/visionary landscape.  ‘Bogland’ is a poem that is poised between the literal and the symbolic and the reader must constantly shift between the literal and metaphorical reading of the text.

The bog, as a symbol of Irish history, allows Heaney, in future poems, to speak about the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1969 – 1998).  One of the insights gained in this poem, and developed in his third collection, Wintering Out (1972) in the poem ‘Tollund Man’, is that the soil of Ireland contains its past, including all the spilt blood and the broken bones and bodies of ‘The Disappeared’ and all the other remnants of its violent history.  In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years.  ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog.  ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it compares and contrasts a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998.  The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island also.   Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’.  And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.

I suppose it is fitting for a poem written in the late ’60s in Ireland that there is no sense of closure in ‘Bogland’.  In describing the ground of the bog as bottomless, the poem is also describing itself and the endless possibilities of the bog as a symbol.  ‘Bogland’ seems to suggest that poems are found having lain hidden in the subconscious of the poet, awaiting discovery.  In his own words, Heaney states:

‘I have listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies out of the bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery’ (Preoccupations, 34).

‘Bogland’ sees a more confident and spare style emerge and the nine phrases in the poem open and meld into one another, in imitation of the yielding ground of the bog.  The epiphany to be taken from the poem is that there is no bottom to the well of imagination; there is no end to the exploration of the past.  The poem is delivered with a new air of assurance and confidence.  Heaney, like James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,  is now finally ready and prepared to speak, with no hint of self-consciousness, on behalf of his race – ‘We have no prairies’, ‘Our unfenced country’, ‘Our pioneers keep striking’…..

Therefore, this is a groundbreaking poem which lays down deeper nuances to the original ideas first expressed in ‘Digging’ and other poems.  Heaney identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry.

 

[1] Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.

Seamus Heaney talks about why he wrote the ‘bog’ poems.

 

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https://youtu.be/ZDT2ZdNL9CM

 

Works Cited

Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.

Heaney, Seamus. Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968 – ’78. London: Faber and Faber, 1980.