The Tollund Man in Springtime

Heaney first introduced Tollund Man in his collection ‘Wintering Out’ of 1972; further background information is provided at the end of this section.

A sequence about ‘green’ issues: six sonnets explore the tensions between the unspoilt purity of the past and the destructiveness of progress and pollution.

Heaney reintroduces his iron-age hero, whose sacrificially murdered body had been miraculously preserved in a Jutland peat-bog since the 4th century BC and discovered in 1950.


Tollund Man provides the voice of the revenant wandering perplexed through the technology-driven, security-threatened urban world that Man has created for the 21st century. As a spirit he can cross virtual city … scans, screens, hidden eyes undetected.

He explains his presence: an absorbed face/ Coming and going, neither God nor ghost,/ Not at odds or at one, but simply lost/ To you and yours a neutral invisible fly-on the-wall’ observer initially at least open-minded to the challenge of coping with modernity.

He was resurrected from nature’s peat bog of seeding grass/ trickles of kesh water, sphagnum moss/ Dead bracken on the spreadfield. The violence of his fate was of benefit strengthening him for having been a sacrificial victim in his own time (they chose to put me down/ for their own good) but instinctively uncomfortable, conscious of things going awry in the world as sensed through nature: a sixth-sensed threat:/ Panicked snipe offshooting into twilight, larks quietened in the sun,/ Clear alteration in the bog-pooled rain.

  • Heaney describes with great lyricism the bogs he knows very well from his home environment as a child, a landscape shared with Tollund Man; includes local usage (kesh, a small watercourse; spreadfield, boggy extent). His talk at Silkeborg Museum in 1996, described his childhood memories of the bog in similar terms: I loved the structure the peat bank revealed after the spade had worked its way through the surface of the peat. I loved the mystery and silence of the place when the work was done at the end of the day and I would stand there alone while the larks became quiet and the lapwings started calling, while a snipe would suddenly take off and disappear…”
  • Sonnet based on lines of 10 syllables; volta after 8; 3 complete sentences:
  • no rhyme scheme but as recurrent through the sequence, loose examples: lost/ moss;
  • vocabulary of the technological age: virtual / scans, screens, hidden eyes;
  • sound effects in sentence (1): principal sonic echoes [ai] Springtime/ I’ll/ time/ neither;[i:]  screens/ seeding/ neither spreadfield; [ɒ Tollund/ god nor / Not/ odds/ lost; [ʌ] Tollund/ Un registered/ under/ sphagnum/ rust; [e] registered/ / kesh/ dead/ spreadfield/ red; alliterative effects: [sk]   scans/ screens; [g] god/ ghost; [y] you and yours; sibilant [s] to echo the sound of water: seeding grass/ trickles of kesh/ phagnum moss; [r] red as rust;
  • sentence (2): alliterative [r] reawoke/ revel/ spirit/ strengthened; (e) revel/ strengthenedʊ–woke/ chose/ own;
  • final sentence: [ai] snipe/ twilight/ awry/ quietened; [ɪpanicked/ -ing/ into/ in; alliterative sibilants: sixth-sensed/ snipe offshooting;
  • Snipe: a wetland bird; bracken: wet- and heath-land ferny undergrowth; sixth sense: intuition, instinctive knowledge without reasoning;          


He came from Scone of peat, composite bog-dough, the peat that was harvested and processed for domestic use: first trampled like a muddy vintage as are grapes to make wine, then dried manually (slabbed and spread and turned) for fuel; peat a heavy dead-weight; always slightly moist and unsuitable to start a fire: never kindling-dry; slow-burning for economy; never burning hot; of unmistakeable bog-land origin: its very smoke a sullen/ Waft of swamp-breath.

He is ‘of’ and ‘from’ this same vintage, that same dead weight in joint and sinew (alluding to the broken leg of the resurrected body). His recovery is lyrically described: exhumed from peat the perfect preservative and delivered for all his pagan origins as if produced as part of Creation: like turned turf in the breath of God/ Bog bodied on the sixth day, then on the seventh day on the last, all told, unatrophied, whole, able to move, fit for his present ‘mission’.

  • scone a small flat cake originating long ago from the north and west of the British Isles made of flour, fat and milk mixed to produce dough and baked quickly; kindling small dry items used to start a fire; lukewarm: neither hot nor cold but tending towards cool;
  • personified bog swamp-breath; flue: way-out for smoke, chimney; sod: the chunk of ground dug up by a spade; soughing suggests a slight sound that wind might make in the trees;
  • Sonnet in a single sentence with punctuation pauses; lines based on 10 syllable;  volta in line 11; loose complex rhyme scheme; abba acca defefd;
  • assonant effects: [ɒ] scone/ composite/ bog reintroduced after (l.9) sod/ Got/ once/ God/ bog-bodied;ʊdough/ though/ whole/ slow/ smoke/ so; [ai] like/ dry/ later plied/ like/ unatrophied; [uːthrough/ flue/ sinew/ [ə] ashless flameless; [e] spread/ dead/ breath/ then/ felt/ breath/ bare;[æ] trampled/ slabbed/ ashless/ last line And/ last/ unatrophied  [ɜː] turned/ burn/ reintroduced turned turf;         
  • consonant effects: [s] slabbed and spread/ sun; smoke/ sullen/ swamp-/ spade/ slid/ soughed; [b] breath/ bog-bodied/ brown and bare;                                                           


Tollund Man lies currently in his display-case in the museum at Silkeborg in Denmark placed in similar posture to that of his discovery in the bog, The watcher’s eye moves along the skeleton from the head that is best preserved, noting both its colour and its reflective shine: Bronze buffed. The skeleton is laid on its side with eye at turf level with its delicately preserved snailskin lid. The eye moves to arm and leg and shoulder all perishable tissue gone but set comfortably, pillowed/ As fleshily as when the bog-pith weighed in a symbiotic relationship: from burial to resurrection, from violent fate to current mission the victim’s body has been sustained by its peaty protection.

A museum display for over 60 years, Tollund Man has been waiting in limbo, on show until the future beckoned, Between what happened and what was meant to be, an iron-age figure patiently awaiting the call: while all that lay in wait/ Still waited. Disembodied. Far renowned.

Those who viewed him as a witness of his time, a spiritual force for the good, placed their faith in him, a paradoxical description for a pagan relict as faithless as a stone.

He was found in a kind of calendar-warp: the farmers who turned up to harrow the ground in preparation for sewing discovered that the 4th c. BC crop was sewn. Furthermore, once unearthed, the body recognised a landscape unchanged by time: soft wind/ moony water in a rut.

  • Sonnet; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme beyond 2 rhymed pairs;
  • a flurry of short sentences; 10 in all; volta after 7 lines linking objective description to subjective issues;
  • Initial [e] [h] combination heavy head and alliterative Bronze-buffed give way to [au] ground/ brow [e] level/ leg/ felt/ when; later meant [f] turk/ phantom/ felt/ fleshily and [əʊshoulder/ pillowed/ mould; [ɪ] becomes persistent: lid/ pillowed/ fleshily/ pith/ buried/ unburied; [m] cluster in line 6  [i:]  initial cheek is echoed later: me/ me/ between/ between   [ɪə] years/ hear; cluster of consonant [b] in mid-piece; [ei] initial weighed/ lay in wait/ waited/ faith placed/ faithless/ Danish; rhyme stone/ sown;                              


The soul of a man executed around 350 BC returns to discover 20th century malaise. Heaney validates the idea that his iron-age revenant may comment on the current state of affairs via a comment made in tribute to Czeslaw Milosz: ‘the soul exceeds its circumstances’.

Tollund Man is fortified by natural bogland features unchanged over nearly two and a half thousand years: he has renewed his staying powers in the peat of his display-case, summoned his webbed wrist/ old uncallused hands to take strength from living symbols of the Jutland bog, exercised the power of mind over matter to cure an injury (evident in the body) and by telling himself to exceed his historical circumstances returned to ‘modern’ life with a task to accomplish.

Despite advanced signs of decline (Late as it was) some things remained timeless: The early bird still sang, the meadow hay/ Still buttercupped and daisied. But modernity has brought unfamiliar data: a new pollutive smells alongside the old, exhaust fumes, silage reek; other evidence of  carbon-dioxide emissions more blatant still: the thickened traffic/ Swarm at a roundabout five fields away/ And transatlantic flights stacked in the blue.

  • Sonnet; lines based on 10 syllables; no formal rhyme scheme except for 2 rhymed pairs; volta in line 8;
  • assonant and alliterative effects prior to the volta: sibilants: soul/ exceeds/ circumstances. Yes; [i:] exceeds/ peat later heal; [ɑː] circumstances/ granted/ last; [ei] claim/ case/ staying/ spade; [w] webbed wrists  [ɪhistory/ display/ wrists/ silver/ skin;  [ɔː] sward/ restored; later swarmed;
  • after line 8: [ei] late/ hay/ daisied/ away; strong presence of sibilant consonants: still sang/ still/ daisied sky/ smelled/ exhaust fumes, silage and through to the final line of the piece flights stacked [u] new/ fumes/ blue; [e] meadow/ smelled/ heather bed; [ai] sky/ silage/ five/ flights; [ɪ] earlier skin/ thickened echoed in thickened traffic transatlantic; and [æ] sang/ transatlantic;        
  • paired opposites: Late/ early/ old/ new;
  • buttercups and daisies are common meadow flowerstransformed here into a verb;                        
  • A fuller context reads: ‘Milosz became renowned as a witness to his time. This diminishes not only his achievement as a writer, but also his achievement as a rebel. For the struggle against Communism was also a struggle against historicism, against the belief in the sufficiency of history for the understanding of life. Milosz’s teaching was that history was no more to be granted the last word. One does not live entirely, or even mainly, for one’s time. The soul exceeds its circumstances.Tribute to Czeslaw Milosz, 1911-2004 by Leon WieseltierYour browser may not support display of this image. published in the New York Times on September 12, 2004


Tollund Man is challenged by modern life-style that has moved from natural to developed, from rural to urban, from ‘outdoor’ to ‘indoor’, from slow paced to manic

His life-time’s landscape was characterised by rainfall and since formal education in the modern sense was non-existent he learned his coping skills from calm and patient cattle with their knowledgeable/ Solid standing and readiness to wait.

His learning amounted to study of ‘wet/ washy/ water’;  no protection from the elements for animal, vegetable or mineral: head as washy as a  head of kale/ every dumb beast sunk above the cloot yet the passive animals brought their heavyweight/ Silence to bear on nosed-out (having failed in their snout-led forage for food amid waterlogged earth) sludge and puddle.

His ‘old’ life belonged to another world, unlearnable, and so with no alternative available to be stoically accepted: To be lived by.

The ‘new’ world shows him only people’s dissatisfaction: a Newfound contrariness/ In check-out lines, at cash-points; those queuing are programmed and distant: wired, far-faced smilers.  He is totally out of touch and in a state of ‘stand-off’; a perplexed outsider thinking with pride of a much preferable habitat: Bulrush, head in air, far from its lough.

  • Sonnet; lines based on 10 syllables; discernable irregular rhyme scheme; volta in line 11;
  • sentence (1) provides a blend of assonant and alliterative features:[s] solid standing / readiness; [ei] rain/ wait/ kale/ tail heavyweight; [e] readiness/ wet/ head/ shedding/ every/ heavyweight/ bear; [ɒ] knowledgeable/ solid; [w] wet/ washy/ water; [ʌ dumb beast sunk above/ sludge and puddle; later Bulrush; [k] kale/ flanks/ sunk; [æ] trampled gaps
  • cloot: dialect word for part of or all of a beast’s cloven hoof;
  • sentence (2): [n] another/ un learnable carried into final sentence: Newfound contrariness/ lines/ points; weave of  [ai] and [f] : wired far-faced smilers;    


Tollund Man describes his frustrated attempts to keep alive Through every check and scan the endangered symbols of his past that provided him with strength and morale at the outset.

Modernity has defeated the challenge: exposed to the ambient conditions of a modern tenement, his Tollund rushes – roots and all -/ Bagged in their own bog-damp turn musty/ friable and lose the smells of good health: frank bouquet/ Of weed leaf and turf mould. Their appearance, too, is in terminal decline: drowned-mouse fibres withered.

The net outcome of Tollund Man’s foray into modern life parodies the Church’s burial text: Dust in my palm/ And in my nostrils dust. He has reached decision time: should he Shake it off and try undeterred to reanimate the reed with spit in pollen’s name/ And in my own?

His countryman’s instinct dictates his response: As a man would, cutting turf,/ I straightened, spat  on my hands, felt benefit and set off on the first stage to somewhere else: spirited myself into the street.

He goes and we are left with only one conclusion: Tollund Man knows where he is better off; for all its hardships, the ‘old’ life has more to offer him than the ‘new’ as myriad de-stabilising cracks appear.

  • broom cupboard: the small space in which cleaning utensils (brush/broom) are kept; allusion to the heath-land plant (broom) seems coincidental;
  • Sonnet; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme beyond distant pairing  stay/ bouquet; volta in line 9;
  • four complete sentences with enjambed lines offering a varying flow in oral delivery;
  • vocabulary of decline and disintegration: musty/ friable/ withered/ limp/ soggy/ dust;
  • The first 2 sentences combine alliterative [k] check/ scan/ carried and weave of bilabial plosives [d] [d] and [æ] bunch/ Bagged/ bog-damp/ Broom with chains of [uːThrough/ roots/ Broom and of [ʌ] bunch of Tollund rushes/ cupboard/ until/ musty;
  • line (6) rings a change: assonant [i:]  green/ weed leaf [ɪskinned/ withered/ / limp; [au] drowned –mouse accompany paired [k] skinned stalk; frank/ bouquet ; [əʊwhole/ mould;
  • the question combines [ʌ] dust/ dust with a percussive sequence of [ɪ] mix it in with spit in alongside varied sibilants [s] dust/ nostrils; should/ shake; mix/ spit/ pollen’s carried into the final lines: As/ straightened, spat/ hands/ spirited myself/ street alongside a cluster of plosive [t] cutting turf; straightened, spat/ hands; felt benefit; spirited;        
  • n one poem (part of a fine sequence revisiting his own ‘Tollund Man’ of more than thirty years ago) Heaney quotes a remark about the late Czeslaw Milosz, that ‘the soul exceeds its circumstances’. District and Circle shows how this can be imagined; it shows, too, how genuinely new poetry can escape from the clutch even of the poet’s own reputation, to become original, moving, and necessary all over again. Peter McDonald in The Literary Review

Further background:

  • For an intimate photo-based study of bog bodies, featuring both Grauballe Man and Tollund Man go to The National Geographic magazine of September, 2007 (pp80-93). The quality of the photography illustrates the colours, contours and textures that challenged Heaney in his quest to transpose a visual image into word.
  • In a newspaper article of April, 2006, Heaney spoke of Tollund Man as follows: ‘He came again to remind me that lyric poetry was OK… (releasing the poet…) into pleasure … love poems …bits and pieces … more personal stuff… I love the guy … God forbid saying this, but he’s a Green Man … a life on the side of life. Like everybody nowadays, he’s a bit in and out of the city. A bit in and out of the world.’
  • Interestingly Heaney has used a similar device in Sweeney Redevivus, Part 3 of ‘Station Island’ (1984). Sweeney, an ancient, exiled Irish king, returns just as he was, endowed with the gift of flight so as to be able to provide a bird’s-eye-view of modernity and react to what he finds. This sequence might equally be entitled ‘Tollund Man Redevivus’.


  • Face from Prehistoric Denmark/ offers some background detail: Tollund Man is probably the best preserved body from pre-historic times in the world. The head was exceedingly well-preserved. The eyes were closed and so was the mouth – the look on his face was calm and solemn as if he was just sleeping….
  • … on Monday May 8th, 1950 the police in Silkeborg received an alarming message. On the previous Saturday a body had been discovered in a bog close to Bjældskovdal, an area located approximately 10 kilometres west of Silkeborg. Accordingly, the body was discovered on May 6th, 1950.
  • Tollund Man was alive during the first part of the iron age, 300-400 years B.C. at a time when almost everybody was involved in farm work. In order to prepare the land people used a special kind of plough, an ard, which was pulled by oxen.
  • The Tollund Man was discovered with a rope around his neck. Questions followed: had the rope been used for hanging him or strangling him; was this a sacrificial offering? Was he guilty of a crime for which he had to be punished? Was he a low-life in society that people wanted to get rid of? Or was he a slave or perhaps a well-respected man who was sacrificed in order to appease the gods of the bog?
  • The famous Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney wrote an extract of his famous poem “The Tollund Man” in the guest book for Silkeborg Museum in 1973.
  • Seamus Heaney gave a talk at Silkeborg Museum in 1996, where he described his childhood memories of the bog: “When I was a child and an adolescent I lived among peat-diggers and I also worked in the peat bog myself. I loved the structure the peat bank revealed after the spade had worked its way through the surface of the peat. I loved the mystery and silence of the place when the work was done at the end of the day and I would stand there alone while the larks became quiet and the lapwings started calling, while a snipe would suddenly take off and disappear…”
  • Heaney was influenced by Danish anthropologist PV Glob’s book, ‘The Bog People’ (1967)’ which showed photographs of gradual removal of bodies from the bog; the poet views it as ‘rebirth’ and the body becomes an icon;