What specific poetic and stylistic devices does Seamus Heaney use to explore themes in "Limbo," and how do they contribute to the tone?
In the first stanza of “Limbo” the apparently calm tone in which the fishermen’s grisly catch is revealed is undercut by the consonance of the stuttering “n” sounds which convey at least negation, if not outright disbelief, especially in the second line, which contains the revelation, where the sound occurs five times.
Consonance is used several times in this way, both to convey an emotion and to strengthen an image, as in the sodden sound of “waded in under” in the fourth stanza. Heaney employs assonance in a similar fashion, with the long, groaning “o” sounds of “A cold glitter of souls” followed in the next line by a “briny zone” (here using consonance within the phrase and picking up the assonance in the previous line), reinforcing the iciness of Limbo.
These sounds do much to convey the tone of the poem. The imagery, however, is even more powerful in establishing the theme. The central stanza of five conveys a particularly strong contrast in a simile, followed by a contrasting metaphor:
Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.
Here, the initial simile conveys numbness, while the succeeding metaphor is one of intense pain. This contrast emphasizes the awful and unnatural quality of the mother’s action in a physical image. The fishing imagery links this stanza both to the beginning of the poem and to the final striking image of Christ’s unhealed palms, which cannot fish for the soul of the child in Limbo.
check Approved by eNotes Editorial