The Poem

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“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 prairie to the close horizon of the Irish countryside, which seems to “encroach” upon the poet. Unlike American history, which in its westward expansion seemed to explore limitless horizons, Irish history turned inward, toward the center. The poem’s perspective moves inward from the horizon to a nearby “tarn,” or mountain lake, and the poet imagines that all of Ireland is reflected in the pool and its swampy surroundings, as if it were the eye of the Cyclops, a mythical, one-eyed giant.

The poet’s attention focuses more closely on the marshy land around the lake and its “crusting” surface, which appears firm but is in reality unstable. Continuing to turn inward, the third stanza moves the poet’s imagination back to the time when the elk’s carcass was discovered in the bog. Readers are led to the edge of, and then into, the bog itself. For Heaney, the elk raises the question of what other articles are suspended in the bog’s “black butter.” He remembers childhood stories of people storing food in the peat for long periods of time; the bog therefore becomes a repository, not only of archaeological artifacts, but of Irish culture, history, and identity. Ireland’s mythic past, suggested by the Cyclops reference, is joined in the bog with its physical, organic past. The swampy landscape, soft and unstable, swallows anything laid to rest on it yet preserves and combines these objects into an amalgamation of personal and cultural histories.

The poet is led deeper into the peat, as if he were sinking in quicksand, and sees objects suspended in the bog. The poem concludes with Heaney attempting to strip away all the layers of soil and history that have accumulated over thousands of years. He discovers that there is no bottom, as if the swampy hole were so deep that the Atlantic Ocean itself had seeped up through the Irish landscape. If he should go farther down, he would ultimately go below the island itself and straight through the earth, never reaching the bottom.

Forms and Devices

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Written in free verse, the poem’s progression depends largely on the lines’ enjambment, which pulls readers down...

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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 upon the ruins of previous cultures. Heaney observes that “Every layer they strip/ Seems camped on before.” For Heaney, the layers are not easily distinguishable because, unlike the layers of solid ground, the bog is continually “melting and opening underfoot.” What was long past mingles with what has recently found its way into the marsh, and distinctions between time periods become unclear.

As the poet-archaeologist of “Bogland” digs deeper into the peat, he travels back not only through historical time but also into the collective human consciousness. The artifacts uncovered in the upper layers give way to increasingly primitive objects: the butter, the “waterlogged trunks” of ancient trees, and finally a primordial sea deep below the surface where the “wet centre is bottomless.” Leaving the historical, physical world, the poet enters the realm of myth and the supernatural. Here he seeks to reveal the foundations of culture and the roots of identity by literally penetrating below the surface and identifying previously obscured social and artistic origins. In the end, though, the poet is unable to reach a solid beginning, having found instead a vast ocean of experience that is beyond humanity’s knowledge and power of understanding.