painting of bogland

Bogland

Introduction

Seamus Heaney raises difficult questions about the cultural and political division in Northern Ireland through his description of the Irish bogs and their ability to preserve the wonderful curiosities of the past. Both are shaped by a complex history and continue to struggle for “definition” and identity.

Seamus Heaney Reads Bogland

The Political Landscape

The first two stanzas locate the reader in the rolling drumlins and rugged mountains of Ireland. A “tarn” is a lake surrounded by these “encroaching” slopes. Instead of the “horizon” being somewhere in the untouchable and remote distance, our view of the world “concedes” to the hills, and we will never be able to see beyond the next ridge.

On a straightforward level, the verbs to concede and to encroach refer to the uneasy boundaries of the landscape, but they also have political connotations. For instance, a candidate might concede an election to their opponent, or a ruthless dictator might slowly encroach on the rights and freedom of their citizens. By using these two words, Heaney links the geology of Ireland to its divided society.

The Bogs and the Prairies

The poet also compares the hills of Ireland to the wide and flat “prairies” of North America that continue uninterrupted all the way to the horizon. He clearly appreciates the progress and opportunity offered by the American Dream compared to the insular and bitter politics of Northern Ireland.

The land is so open, it can “slice a big sun at evening”. This implies the Irish hills cast gloomy shadows over the “unfenced country”. Notice how the poet then repeats the word “sun” in the second stanza when he describes how the wet bog “keeps crusting / between the sights of the sun”. This repetition draws the reader’s attention to the two different landscapes. The tone is upbeat in the first example. By contrast, the lines “bog that keeps crusting / Between the sights of the sun” creates a more pessimistic mood. Listen carefully to the the way Heaney stresses different consonant sounds, especially the repetition of /s/.

In a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature, the poet explained how he came to refer to the American prairie in this poem:

At that time I was teaching modern literature in Queen’s University, Belfast, and had been reading about a frontier and the west as an important myth in the American consciousness, so I set up – or rather, laid down – the bog as an answering Irish myth.

Seamus Heaney (1974)

Myths often encode the dominant ideology of a culture. For example, classical westerns promoted a spirit of freedom and independence. The stoic protagonist would restore law and order before moving on to the next outpost in the American wilderness. The “pioneers” in Northern Ireland do not seem to share that desire.

Memories and the Bog

In the same lecture, Heaney revealed several of the things preserved by the bogland came from memories “reaching back into early childhood”. He would often hear about “bog-butter… kept fresh for a great number of years under the peat”. When he was at school, a few of his “neighbours had got their photographs in the paper” because they found the “skeleton of an elk” in the bog. Heaney joked that “a great proportion of the most cherished material heritage of Ireland was found in a bog”.

The poet was eager to reveal this “congruence between memory and bogland and… our national consciousness”

The Butter

The fourth verse describes the freshness of the “butter” which was “recovered salty and white” after “more than a hundred years” in the bog. It is amazing how the butter was preserved so effectively by the ground.

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.

Butter retrieved from the bogland
Butter Wrapped in a Cloth

Heaney uses a few poetic tricks here to communicate his message.

First, the repetition of sounds emphasises the butter sinking into the bog. Listen carefully to the assonance in “butter sunk under”. Even the unstressed “er” sounds are very obvious when delivered with a Northern Irish accent. The two nasal sounds in “sunk and “under” are then echoed in “more”, “than” and “hundred” in the next line. This is the bog “melting”.

By contrast, there are four plosives in the first line: /b/, /t/, /k/ and /d/. These sounds are all created by blocking and then releasing your air passage. This could convey the surface of the bog “opening”.

The plosive /t/ in the adjectives “salty” and “white” creates a tone of surprise and excitement.

The fourth verse begins and ends with the noun butter. At first glance, the repetition suggests some things never change. However, the second butter is used metaphorically to describe the “ground”. Perhaps Heaney is drawing attention to a process of symbolisation in society when facts and objects are elevated into myths that define the community. For instance, the 1690 Battle of the Boyne became a symbol of Protestant power and continues to divide Northern Ireland hundreds of years later.

The link to community is there is the adjective “kind”. It signifies the bog’s gentle treatment of the butter and other objects. However, Heaney was well versed in Anglo-Saxon and classical languages, so he knew the word “kind” comes from “kin” meaning family.

Of course, there is enjambment between the fourth and fifth verses. The bog never stops “melting and opening”.

Finally, listen to the repetition of nasal sounds in the fifth verse. Again, the poet is trying to encode the rhythm of the bog in the lyrical movement of the lines. He starts two lines with the falling rhythm of the trochees “melting” and “missing”. Notice how the two verbs are in the continuous tense to suggest the actions are incomplete. Then the iambic foot in “by millions”. The alliteration is clear in these three words to continue that sense of falling. Put simply, Heaney is forcing the audience on to the next image to highlight the bog’s inability to settle. It will never reach a another “definition”.

Conclusion

The poem can be interpreted as a warning: if we continue to search the “bottomless” layers of history for our “definition” and a way forward through the sectarian violence, we will remain a fractured society.

In the same way archaeologists pull “waterlogged trunks / Of great firs” from the ground, leaders from both sides of the community pull important dates from history to support their agenda. The Flight of the Earls, the Ulster Plantation, the Siege of Derry, and the Easter Uprising are all celebrated and promoted as parts of a divided identity. These are just “astounding crates of air” like the “Great Irish Elk”.

T.P. Flanagan

Heaney dedicated “Bogland” to his friend and artist, T.P. Flanagan. They spent some weekends together “being exposed to the land and sea” around Donegal. Both men were interested in the physical structure of the landscape and the importance of places on our identity. While Heaney was inspired to write about the county’s bogland, Flanagan created the following painting:

painting of boglands
“Boglands” T.P. Flanagan (1967)

Notice how painter positions the viewer to focus more on what is beneath the surface of the bog, forcing our eyes to explore “inwards and downwards” to the “wet centre”.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Who does ‘we’ refer to in the first line?
  2. What is a prairie?
  3. How does Heaney convey its huge dimensions in the second line?
  4. Look at the first two stanzas. How does Ireland contrast geographically to the expansive American landscape?
  5. ‘Concedes’ and ‘encroaching’ usually have negative connotations. Does it present the landscape as sinister?
  6. How does the poet still manage to present a positive view of the Irish landscape? Look in particular at the verb ‘wooed’.
  7. What happens to the bogland at night?
  8. An Irish Elk is an extinct stag-like creature. Explain the meaning of the metaphor ‘an astounding crate full of air’.
  9. What happened to the ‘butter’ that was ‘sunk’ beneath the bog?
  10. What might the ‘butter’ image symbolise?
  11. What impression does the poet create of the bog in the last four stanzas?
  12. Why did Heaney deliberately choose the word ‘pioneer’ in the sixth stanza?
  13. Line twenty-four suggests the ‘pioneers’ dig ‘inwards and downwards’ to find pulpy ‘great firs’. How does this contrast with the American prairies?
  14. The poem ends with references to two local superstitions. What are they?

O’Driscoll, Dennis (2008) “Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney”. Faber and Faber.
Heaney, Seamus (1974) “Feelings into Words”. The Royal Society of Literature Lecture.

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