Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In part, “Bogland” illustrates the poet’s quest to break free from artistic conventions and traditions. Historically, poets have struggled with the need to create their own identities as artists, and this struggle has been difficult for twentieth century Irish poets living in the shadow of influential writers such as William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Searching for his own artistic roots, Heaney followed the advice of fellow Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1905-1967), who believed that the local, or parochial, could transcend its mundane, or provincial, limitations to represent universal themes. The close scrutiny of the landscape in “Bogland” provides the poet with a metaphor for exploring larger cultural themes.
One of the most omnipresent themes in Irish literature is the search for a national identity. Having lived in Northern Ireland during the “Troubles” (the political and religious conflicts between unionists and separatists, with origins that trace back hundreds of years), Heaney is keenly aware of the difficulties associated with establishing a national identity. The poet avoids the problems of essentializing his definition of Irish culture by presenting culture as a landscape in a perpetual state of metamorphosis. Ireland and the Irish are not a single, simply identifiable entity determined solely by political or religious affiliations. Rather, they are the accumulation of thousands of years of history, which becomes jumbled and confused in multiple layers of collective cultural consciousness. The bog serves as the landscape’s archetypal memory, preserving everything that has occurred. It contains an organic record of each generation that has lived on it. Therefore, Ireland’s identity is constantly redefining itself as successive generations add to the bog and are made part of the whole.
For Heaney then, the bog functions as a metaphor for the search for significant patterns, a means of unifying a fractured, postcolonial society. Establishing what it means to be “Irish” is possible, but only as an accumulation of meanings that reverberate back and forth from present to past to present again. While Heaney’s search terminates in the vast, bottomless center of the world, the poem’s conclusion is neither pessimistic nor nihilistic. As he digs deeper, the poet uncovers increasingly ancient levels of culture and consciousness until he verges on the mysterious origins of history itself. Here, in the dark roots of Ireland, the poet can explore his origins free from the political, religious, and artistic limitations that confine him on the surface.