Come to the Bower

In this first of six titles referred to as the ‘bog poems’ in North the voice is that of the individual who has come upon the mummified corpse of a woman hidden beneath the surface of the the bog where it has been preserved. The initial ‘forensic’ examination of the mummy is overtaken by the finder’s reactions to what he is uncovering. The answers to many of the questions set by the piece, particularly the sexual connotations of the discovery, remain elusive.

His hands come, touched (the sense of touch is paramount in the piece) by bog flowers, sweetbriar and tangled vetch, before trespassing beneath the surface of the bog, foraging past the burst gizzards/ Of coin hoards (valuables bagged and left as royal burial offerings) to the secret place where the dark-bowered queen lies awaiting discovery.

Heaney reveals the techniques used to keep the bog-body submerged. The sticks that held it down assist in the task: sharpen willow/ Withdraws gently unpinning it from the black maw (jaws)/ Of the peat.

The layer of skins with which the body is swaddled are folded back to reveal the head: The pot of the skull and preserved head-hair stained by the bog: The damp tuck of each curl/ Reddish as a fox’s brush. Further evidence of social status is revealed: a gorget in the flesh/ Of her throat.

As the water of the bog rises around the body, the searcher’s hands ignore hidden treasure (The riverbed’s washed/ Dream of gold) reaching instead towards something deemed more valuable than precious items. In line, perhaps, with the intimacy implicit in the reference to the classical goddess of erotic love, the finder’s attention focuses finally on the beauty of human regeneration and the private area of her body with which it is associated: the bullion/ Of her Venus bone. The ‘bog queen’ of the next piece will be conscious of her fertility and regret time’s reducing effect on her regenerative function.

Readings that infer sexual violation by an outsider from the narrative must also consider allegorical materials hidden beneath the surface of this and many other poems in the collection.

  • Myth and mystery prevail; we do not learn why the body is there or the identity of the finder ot the date of retrieval.

  • Heaney has already alluded to the driving impulses of contemporary society in Bone Dreams, iii, we will learn of further ritual sacrifices made in the name of the pagan goddess Nerthus;

  • forage: the idea of rummaging, searching has the added connotation of “pillaging”, “looting” (12c., Mod.Fr. fourrage), so there is, perhaps, a sense of trespass even violation present;

  • bower: originally referring to “room, hut, dwelling, chamber”; the sense of “leafy arbor” (place enclosed by trees) is a later variant; its use here tends to suggest “secret personal space”;

  • brush: the bushy tail of a fox; bristly by analogy with the sweeping-brush;

  • gorget: probable reference to an ornamental collar worn perhaps as a sign of high rank;

  • bullion: early 15c., “uncoined gold or silver,” from Anglo-Norm. bullion “bar of precious metal,”

  • 5 quatrains; 5 sentence structure with lines of variable length from 3 to 8 syllables; no rhyme scheme; frequent use of enjambment;

  • first person speaker;

  • Sonic echoes: [ʌ] come/ touch/ unpin/ unwrap/ skull/ tuck/ brush/ bullion/ Venus; [i:] sweet/ queen/ peat/ see/ each/ reach/ Dream/ Venus; [ɑː] past/ dark/ sharpened/ mark/ Starts/ past [ɪ] gizzards/ unpin/ is/ willow Withdraws/ skins/ Reddish/ spring/ riverbed; [əʊ] throat/ gold/bone;

  • Stanza (1) is strong in variant gentle sibilant sounds: [s] [z] and fricative [tʃ] touched/ vetch [dʒ] foraging;

  • (2) mixes an alliterative blend of bilabial sounds: plosive [p] and [b] and continuant [w];

  • (3) retains [p] and [w] adding velar plosive [k];

  • (4) returns to variant sibilant sounds: [s] [z] adding [ʃ] reddish/ brush/ flesh and fricative [dʒ] gorget; there is an initial trill of [r] sounds in (5);

  • This is the first of 6 bog poems that create unease and involve themselves in dangerous emotions (NCp68);

  • It is important to be aware that underneath the sexual topsoil allegorical material lies buried (MP p134)

  • This is a poem about the Republican tradition, and how the cruelties inflicted upon … Mother Ireland … have brutalised her sons, engendering a love of territory and ancestry that can carry them to appalling extremes (MP p134)

  • The title ‘Come to the Bower’ was that a popular 20th century Republican song, opening the possibility that Heaney was deliberately adding a contemporary political dimension and setting out a common tradition of political martyrdom shared with the Vikings.

  • The so-called ‘bog poems’ ask questions about male Irish Catholic sexuality; they have an edge of scandal (NCp68)… not only of voyeurism but of necrophilia(NCp69)

  • The text is rich in sexual overtones; the ‘bower’ was a secluded place sacred to Nerthus reincarnated both here and in Bog Queen. In ‘Germania, Tacitus tells us she was a pagan, Germanic fertility goddess (to whom, in Wintering Out, 1972, The Tollund Man was sacrificd);

  • NC suggests that myths of blood sacrifice …have an allure of sexual dimension (p70)

  • He maintains that the recovery of this bog-body reveals every intimate detail preserved by the peat viewed by the male poet gazing on and responding to female victims(NC);

  • MP refers to the nervous, sexual excitement of this poem (p135)