The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Bogland,” a short poem of seven four-line stanzas (quatrains), is the final work in Seamus Heaney’s second collection of poetry, Door into the Dark. Heaney was born in the small town of Mossbaum, in County Derry, and is considered one of the most accomplished of the “Ulster poets,” or writers from Northern Ireland. As is much of his early poetry, “Bogland” is heavily influenced by the writer’s rural upbringing and reflects his close ties to the Irish landscape. The title originates from Ireland’s often swampy countryside and from Heaney’s childhood memory of the local interest generated by the discovery of an elk’s skeletal remains in a bog near his hometown. The event was significant because, as he writes, “I began to get an idea of bog as the memory of the landscape, or as a landscape that remembered everything that happened in and to it.” The poem’s link to issues concerning the Irish countryside is further emphasized by its dedication to Thomas P. Flanagan, who authored several novels that reflected the political turmoil and class struggles in rural Ireland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; he also wrote influential critical texts on Irish prose. Flanagan taught at the University of California at Berkeley when Heaney was a guest lecturer there from 1970 to 1971.

“Bogland” opens with the poet comparing the landscape of the American West to that of Ireland and contrasting the vastness of...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Written in free verse, the poem’s progression depends largely on the lines’ enjambment, which pulls readers down the page as the poet is drawn deeper into the landscape. For example, stanza 1 concludes with the image of the poet’s eye surveying the “Encroaching horizon,” which is completed in the opening lines of the second stanza as his eye is “wooed into the cyclops’ eye/ Of a tarn.” Similarly, the last line of stanza 4, “The ground itself is kind, black butter,” is continued in the first line of the fifth stanza, which echoes the theme of the bog’s “Melting and opening underfoot.” Just as stanzas 4 and 5 are linked syntactically by “butter/ Melting,” so the grammatical distinctions between stanzas and sentences become blurred.

“Bogland” presents the poet as historical, cultural, and artistic archaeologist. Heaney had been influenced by P. V. Glob’s The Bog People (1966), an account of a Danish excavation of a first century settlement in Windeby, Germany. The marshy German terrain had nearly perfectly preserved several bodies and artifacts, and Heaney recognized the swamp’s potential to serve as a metaphor for human experience. Instead of civilization progressing linearly along a time line, cultures were built upon each other like the layers of sediment in the bog. This treatment of history is reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s description in part 5 of The Waste Land (1922) of how civilization is built...

(The entire section is 429 words.)