Postmodernism in Heaney’s Poems Bogland and Tollund Man
This research is a case study including discussions and analysis of two poems by Seamus Heaney, one of the postmodern poets. The poems, which are going to be analyzed, are: Bogland and The Tollund Man.
In Heaney’s poetry we can see a connection between the mythical and the logical, the past and the present, to describe his thoughts and emotions, concerning the Irish troubles and human experiences. Heaney represent his feelings toward these problems by using imagery and structural techniques that are present in his poems .
Chapter one of this study is a review of the ideology of postmodernism with emphasis on postmodernism and poetry. It also includes the meaning of postmodernism, different views and criticism on Heaney’s poetry and his ideas about the principles of imagism.
Chapter two analyzes the poem Bogland and reveals some points in describing the poem such as its national sides and two key images in the poem and explains how the poet has achieved and used them in his poems. It also discusses about Heaney’s essay on a poem called The Bog People by P.V Globe.
Chapter three is about the poem The Tollund Man and refers it to the deadly and violent features existing in The Bog People. It discusses how the corpses from ancient world and primitive customs present themselves to the poem. It’s also about the strangeness in today’s conditions and how Heaney changes his descriptive statements and emotional account into images in his poetry. It says that what is considered is the history of present and the whole world is in imaginative language.
Heaney’s poetry is the imagination and dreams of freedom in his mirror and writing these poems is an act of expressing what is happening in his mind.
Today postmodernism is considered as a reproduction of ancient traditions. Postmodernism like modernism, follows the ideas of rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejecting inflexible genre distinctions, and emphasizing parody, irony and playfulness.1
Postmodernism points to a growing reality in culture. Anything fast, image centered, any thing that shocks or no longer keeps the tradition in itself can be considered postmodern.
Dr. Christopher Carter, one of the professors at University of Louisville believes:
From Adrienne Rich to Jacques Derrida, poets continually attack conventional boundaries, recondition them, ignore them. Postmodern poets often subvert the very forms they appropriate. They pose as different selves while refusing to speak for anyone, risk the same audiences they attract, revitalize senses and emotions flattened by mass market culture. They compose a cacophonous music which thrives on interruption and frustrated expectation. Sonnets might have fourteen links, but seldom fourteen lines. Language, that cultural prison, becomes a site of communal resistance. 2
Postmodernism can also be considered in poetry. Among the famous postmodermn poets are: Jacques Derrida, Kathy Acker, Adrienne Rich, Charels Berstein, Yeats and Heaney.
Seamus Heaney in an essey From Feeling to Word in 1974 has described his poetic life and the development of his poetic intelligence, and he believes that at first a man starts to work just like any other imitators and then what he learns is actually his special technique in poetry, he call it craft of writing. Then the poet achieves some results about technique, and in fact it is a collection of skills that the poet uses to create his own style and method.
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About The Bog People he writes:
I admire the range of a poem’s criticism to be more colorful, and I like it to be more firm. The words allow you to have this two-faced encounter. They smile at their reader’s way of reading and wink at the poet’s way of using them. Of course, behind them there is much symbolic theorization, but not that in my conscious movement toward writing poetry. I was guided by the symbolic prescriptions, but I agree with a amalgam of generalities that in a vague way can best describe that symbolic label.And I find the principles of imagism, methodology of the symbolism, interesting: presenting an image as a mental and emotional knot in a moment of time. I think all of these were inevitable by considering the course I had in English literature that reached its peak with Eliot and Yeats.3
This part of modernist’s tradition needs no explanation. Heaney was also conscious of this matter and therefore maybe because of this, in an essay in 1974, that is an important essay for understanding his poetical grows, he talks about these matters in detail.
Writing about Heaney in 1968, Jim Hunter said:
“His own involvement does not exclude us: there are few private references, and the descriptive clarity of his writing makes it easy to follow…Heaney’s world is a warm, even optimistic one: his tone is that of traditional sanity and humanity.”4
Heaney described his area by writing Digging as the first poem of his first book. In this and many later poems, like Tony Morison’s, he was concerned about the oppressed.
After writing the powerful bog poems of North (1975), he was considered as a political poet and was forced to live in the Irish Republic. The troubles of Ireland continued in his poems, but the richer harmonies in Field Work (1979), Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), Seeing Things (1991), and The Spirit level (1996) show his strong intelligence in poetry, and that’s why Robert Lowell considers him as the best Irish poet since W.B Yeats.”
Heaney is the winner of the 1995 Noble Prize for literature.
Seamus Heaney and “Bogland”
The year 1969 is a significant year for Heaney, when he published Bogland. In this poem Heany brought himself from modernism to the postmodernism. It is rarely seen that all of the poets in passing from modernism to postmodernism experienced all of his points completely.
Two key images that have an important role in his sight, especially when we move from his earlier poems, are untouched corpses and bog. How did the poet achieve these two images? The images are important because firstly, they don’t seem to have any mythological side and secondly, no one before Heaney has used them in poetry in this way. We see no trace of them neither in the plays of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, J. M. Synge or Yeats and no sign of them in the short stories and novels of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett or Yeat’s poems. Irish writers had taken no notice of these boggy corpses until the publication of Heaney’s poems. But Heaney himself not only mentioned the presence of those corpses and the bog but also established a reality that has now become a part of Ireland history.
The poem goes like this:
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.
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.
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.
Heaney reveals some points in describing this poem. First of all is that this landscape reminds him of his childhood. Secondly, bog is not just a landscape but it is a memory. In the past some creatures lived in it or some other sank in it. The butter, which was put beneath the coal to save it from decay, is taken out white and salted, and it hasn’t decayed in one hundred years. This memory has national sides, too. Whatever was put in Dubline’s museum, was a sign of an exploration in the boggy area. The things found in the bog awaken the public and personal memory of the poet. Thirdly the poet uses analogy. Prairie is one of the characteristics of America’s soil. The prairie in the dusk doesn’t split the sun in Ireland. Heaney remembers this thought from the memory of American literature. The literature of pioneers, a kind of literature that is written with the opening of America’s continental border. Here, it is not that condition. In this fenceless land, the bog is layered and in each layer that is taken by Irish pioneers, the past generations, in former years have set up a camp. Here, the pioneer doesn’t proceed, but he goes down; and here the land will not reach its explanation after millions of years. Extracting coal from here is difficult, because bog’s water has softened the firs. Heaney with the image of this bog and this memory reaches his poetical independence. But he doesn’t stop in this independence, he tries to bring this subject near to a new way of poetic statement. In fact the reason of Heaney’s popularity in Ireland is that he deepens the realm of death, this eternal subject matter of poetry, in the Irish homeland and the death of the language of poetry. Now we come back to two main images of Heaney’s poem: bog and corpse.
Heaney’s indication of The Bog People, published in the same year as Bogland, is not without reason. P.V Globe, the writer of The Bog People, explains fully about the saved corpses of men and women found in Jutland. These corpses are bare and their throats have been cut or they were suffocated. The writer believes that these corpses were put under the coal in the age of Iron, and he thinks that the men corpses were sacrificed in a custom in the age of the motherhood of “The Mother Goddess” and were sacrificed to guarantee the fertility of the land.
The Mother Goddess selects young men as her bedfellows and in the spring she split their blood on the grounds. One of these men whose head is saved in the museum Silkeburg, is named The Tollund Man that is the title of one of Heaney’s poems that we are going to discuss in the following chapter.
Seamus Heaney and “The Tollund Man”
What took place in the past and accompanied with violence, death and killing, threw itself into a risky future. Heaney, with a reference to these events that happened in his country, wrote the poem Tulland Man. In Death of a Naturalist he says: ” When I wrote this poem, I experienced a new feeling, the feeling of death”(124). Here comes the poem:
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’
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.
I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Laid out in the farmyards,
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.
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 poem is about the forces of fate. The chance of survival for the bog bodies. In the poem, the poet has considered the freedom very important and valuable. There is no society, no group, cold death and outside forces.
The first image is an image of a corpse who is quiet and caught in the torc of others. There is an emphasis on his brown skin. He is left unprotected, naked and destroyed but elevated at the same time. There is a harsh feeling connected with the surrounding country. The goddess is part of the country. The only marks it leaves on victims, are the remains of their death, cap, noose and girdle.
The isolation from society is emphasized in the poem by dwelling on the strane name such as Tollund, Graubelle, Nebelgard. The at home is just the person’s normal state and it is not supposed to be comfortable.
The poem has special kind of characteristics similar to Yeat’s poetry. The most important characteristic of it, is its strangeness in today’s condition. The poet didn’t need to make a strange world in this poem, but the poem is strange itself, because of those real corpses that were brought out of the bog. . But the poetry of this world, which is entirely strange and frightening, cannot be written just with a descriptive language. We will see that Heaney himself came to this conclusion that offering a landscape even a landscape which is so frightening is not enough. The poet’s responsibility is not to describe a landscape either it’s gloomy and savage or it’s poetical and beautiful. He can’t just get affected and then produce his poetry. The main characteristic of a part of modernism in poetry is fragmentary presentation of the pieces. Heaney now, has the subject, has his descriptive statement, has its emotional account, then he changes all of them into images. But in this poem, first of all he deals with external references because every image of the poem and the pieces of poetry can refer to that event. Corpses from ancient world and from primitive customs present themselves to the poet. Nineteen corpses that earlier had lost their real geography, appears to the poet. Today’s world of the poet with these primitive corpses is in danger. The poet himself says that he is in fear. In the field of novel, we have seen distressful worlds in the works of “Borges”, “Nabakov”, “Italo Calvino” and “Margues” and in poetry in the works of “Robert Creely”, “John Ashbery” and now in the works of Heaney that is closer to our time.
Who will say corpse?
To his vivid cast?
Who will say `body’
To his opaque repose?
Heaney is one of the most political poets of the twentieth century, but in spite of social and political matters, he is the poet of presence. He has a certain belief and aim in poetry. The poet sees that after producing his poetry as a progressive conscious of his time and the language of his history and his people, he reveals his dependency in his poetry. When he has passed all these matters, he arrived at a point that the philosophers nowadays call it critical point.
Heaney can be considered as a poet who showed loyalty to the classic English poetry and modern European-English poetry tradition. But because of his protest against the traditions that is passed to him from the past, he shows his originality by turning away from past and traditional principles to modern conventions.
Heaney’s poems, which are related to, Sacrifice Ceremonies are, as they were, the images in Heaney’s mirror. They are his imaginations and dreams of freedom. What we have is a situation in which the world turns out, according to the logic of the poem, not to an unknown territory at all, but to what the poet always knew but had simply forgotten. It is as if the world is a hidden unconscious thing in the poet’s imagination, and writing the poems is the act of expressing this world. In these terms, the violence in Ireland is a return of the ceremonies of sacrifice and Heaney’s poems show such process.
Heaney, S. (1966) Death of a Naturalist.
Thompson, J. (1991). Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory.
Derrida, J. (1997). Grammatology.
Heaney, S. (1980). Preoccupations.
From Internet: http://www.universalteacher.org.uk/poetry/heaney.htm
From Internet: http://athena.louisville.edu/~cscart01/pomopoetry.html
1 Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor, English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder: http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/pomo.html
2 Dr. Christopher Carter Professors at University of Louisville, Postmodern Poetries March 1999.
3 Seamus Heaney, essay on The Bog People by P. V Globe, 1969
4 From a study guide on internet: http://www.universalteacher.org.uk/poetry/heaney.htm
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