The Tollund Man in Springtime

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

Interestingly Heaney has used a similar device in Sweeney Redevivus (Station Island Part 3) where he joins forces with Sweeney, a legendary, exiled Irish king endowed with the gift of flight, takes a bird’s-eye-view of the landscape below and reacts to what he finds. This sequence might equally be entitled ‘Tollund Man Redevivus’.

Heaney first introduced Tollund Man in ‘Wintering Out’ of 1972. In a newspaper article of April, 2006, he talked about his re-appearance: ‘He came again to remind me that lyric poetry was OK … 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.’

Six sonnets explore the tensions between down-to-earth past and a much less palatable present. One subtext has to do with ‘green’ issues.

Ironically Tollund Man is reborn in a suburban environment at the very moment when Nature’s desire to regenerate is at its strongest .


 The sequence is voiced to the revenant, wandering at large through the technology-driven, security-sensitive suburban world of the 21st century. Rendered invisible (lapping himself in time) he can pass through virtual city … scans, screens, hidden eyes undetected.

He is baffled (absorbed face), unsure which way to go (coming and going), of in-between status (neither God nor ghost), open-minded (not at odds or at one) and inscrutable (simply lost to you and yours), perplexed because the then and the now appear so different).

He was buried in a peat bog amidst seeding grass, trickles of kesh water, sphagnum moss and dead bracken where cut peats were left to dry on the spreadfield.

Retrieved from his peaty grave after more than two millennia he confesses, as a sacrificial victim put to death by his own community (they chose to put me down) for reasons best known to themselves (their own good) to an added resolve.

However something has told him (sixth sense) that things are not the same: indigenous birds behaving normally at first (panicked snipe offshooting into twilight) then out of character (going awry); muted birdsong (larks quietened in the sun); the presence of impurities in the bog-pooled rain.

  • virtual: created by computer;
  • register: record
  • scan: close visual examination;
  • lap: wrap, encase;
  • absorbed: fully engaged, paying utmost attention;
  • at odds with: in conflict;
  • at one with: of like mind;
  • kesh: plath or plank over stream or drain;
  • sphagnum moss: plant contributing to the formation of peat;
  • bracken: prolific tall fern;
  • kesh: plank or bridge over or beside water courses (Irish usage) then the water course itself;
  • spreadfield: where cut peats are laid on uncut grass to dry
  • revel: derive great pleasure from, really enjoy;
  • spirit: courage, resolve;
  • put down: put to death, destroy;
  • own good: for personal benefit;
  • sixth sense: intuition beyond normal perception;
  • snipe: brown wetland wading bird with distinctive flight;
  • shoot: depart with the speed of a bullet;
  • go awry: deviate from expected course
  • alteration: change;
  • bog-pool: area of still water in the peat-bog;
  • 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/ strengthened [əʊ] –woke/ chose/ own;
  • final sentence: [ai] snipe/ twilight/ awry/ quietened; [ɪ] panicked/ -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 describes his retrieval: the sticky firmness of the peat in which he was preserved (scone of peat, composite bog-dough) extracted and trampled as are grapes to make wine like a muddy vintage, then sliced (slabbed), laid out (spread and turned), readied for home fires – always slightly moist and unsuitable to start a fire: never kindling-dry; long-lasting  (slow-burn) for economy; never burning hot (lukewarmth); a glum dead-weight of unmistakeable peat bog provenance: its very smoke a sullen waft of swamp-breath.

There he lay long unrisen, stiff with rigor mortis (that same dead weight in joint and sinew) until the moment he was exhumed – he became aware the cutter’s spade (slid), heard its sound (soughed), felt its leverage (plied levered sod), and blinked awake as the peat lid was raised and fresh air flowed in.

Epiphany. Tollund Man celebrates his delivery from the peat (turned turf) as part of a Creation cycle – as if God breathed life into him, still bog bodied on the sixth day, made whole (all told) and freed from rigor mortis (unatrophied) on the seventh (the last).

  • 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;
  • composite: made up of several parts;
  • vintage: year and place a wine was produced;
  • slab: slice in standard pieces;
  • kindling-dry: dry enough to burn;  kindling refers to small dry items used to start a fire
  • dead-weight: heavy burden;
  • lukewarm: moderately warm (result of  slow-burn); tending towards cool
  • flue: chimney vent;
  • sullen: gloomy, joyless;
  • swamp-breath:
  • joint: where limbs connect;
  • sinew: fibre that binds the body structure together;
  • plate: the metal digging end of a spade;
  • slide: move along a surface;
  • sough: make a whistling sound
  • ply: work rhythmically
  • lever: prise up;
  • sixth day: the creation narrative indicates that on the 6th day God created man in his own image; on the seventh day God rested;
  • all told: in all, intotal;
  • unatrophied: re-invigorated;
  • 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; [əʊ] dough/ though/ whole/ slow/ smoke/ so; [ai] like/ dry/ later plied/ like/ unatrophied; [uː] through/ 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;                                                            


Heaney’s ‘Green Man’ emblem senses rebirth in a display-case in the museum at Silkeborg in Denmark. He lies in the posture of his discovery in the bog. Stunning pictorial mages* confirm Heaney’s unique ability to translate what he sees into words and inject emotions and history into the first-person narrative.

The observer’s  eye starts at the head noting its relative size (heavy) and its distinctive yellowy-beige colour and velvety texture (bronze buffed). The skeleton is laid on its side, as if on the qui-vive (ear to the ground), its eye at turf level, its delicately preserved snailskin lid.

 The eye moves to limbs that may have required reattachment (phantom arm and leg and shoulder), cradled comfortably (pillowed), soft tissue reappearing as fleshily as when the bog-pith weighed and held him in a close physical relationship (mould), from burial to resurrection, from violent fate to retrieval .

 A museum display for over 60 years (on show), Tollund Man has been biding his time (while all that lay in wait still waited) until the future beckoned between what happened  and what was meant to be to a sleeping disembodied iron-age figure who hit the 1950s’ headlines (far renowned).

 He outlines a paradox: the faith vested in him as a trustworthy spiritual witness of his own time is misplaced – he is no more than a pagan relict as faithless as a stone raked up in a field. The farmers who turned up to prepare the ground for sowing (harrow) little knew that a 4th c. BC harvest lay beneath its surface (crop was sewn).

 Re-contact with the 20th century seems promising: familiar night-scape data – its touch (soft wind), a spiritual presence in the sky above and signs of human activity (moony water in a rut).

* A photo-based study, featuring both Grauballe Man and Tollund Man appeared in The National Geographic magazine of September, 2007 (pp 80-93).

  • buff: a yellowish beige colour, velvety surface appearance;
  • ear to the ground: keeping track on things going on around;
  • lid: eyelid;
  • phantom: ghostly; sensation felt as if an amputated limb is still there;
  • bog pith: thick consistency of wet peat;
  • mould: adapt the shape of;
  • meant to be: fated, happening beyond one’s control;
  • disembody: separate from material form;
  • faith: strong belief, complete trust;
  • harrow: farm implement with metal teeth dragged across the land to break it up;
  • moony: reflecting the moon, dreamy, unreal;
  • rut: deep track made by passing cart wheels;
  • 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 [əʊ]  shoulder/ 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 and buried in a peat grave around 350 BC has reappeared in the 20th century.

Czeslaw Milosz’s assertion (‘the soul exceeds its circumstances’) encourages Heaney’s Iron Age revenant to feel that he has some further mission to accomplish. He is back and not in his own time … ipso facto his return denies history the last word or the first claim.

The energy generated by the a peat litter in his display case has renewed his stamina (staying powers), instructed his limbs to take strength from living symbols of the Jutland bog –  webbed wrist to develop the movement of silver birches old uncallused hands to be as smooth as young sward. He has exercised the power of mind over matter (telling himself) to cure a spade-cut sustained while being dug out.

However something proves difficult to reconcile … after all this time (Late as it was) in a real sense the early bird still sang cheerful melodies,  field-crops were still entwined with wild flowers (the meadow hays still buttercupped and daisied).

 But …  unfamiliar data have roused him from his heather bed and trouble his senses: the pollutive smells of progress (exhaust fumes, silage reek) …  the blatant evidence of unregulated carbon-dioxide emissions (the thickened traffic swarm) and road layout (roundabout) only explainable in Iron Age terms (five fields away) … the space where birds fly requisitioned by transatlantic flights stacked in the blue.

  • circumstances: conditions in which a thing exists;
  • the last word: the last say, final judgment;
  • claim: assert as true without evidence;
  • gather: bring together, muster;
  • staying power: the stamina to carry on despite tiredness or difficulty;
  • webbed: with visible network of membranes
  • silver birch: tree reputed to grow well in poorer soils;
  • callus: patch of hard skin;
  • sward: expanse of short grass;
  • restore: return to a former condition
  • early bird: notion that the early riser benefits from it;
  • buttercups and daisies: perhaps the most common meadow flowers
  • exhaust fumes: toxic gases given out by vehicles;
  • silage: damp grass and green fodder left to decompose in large containers as winter feed for animals;
  • reek: strong, unpleasant smell;
  • heather: purple flowered moorland plant;
  • traffic: movement of vehicles on the public highway
  • swarm: gather in large numbers
  • roundabout: circular road junction around which traffic moves;
  • stack: fly in a circle awaiting permission to land an aircraft
  • blue: the sky described by its colour;
  •  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  [ɪ]  history/ 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 flowers transformed here into a verb;                         
  •  A tribute 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 Wieseltier published in the New York Times on September 12, 2004


Tollund Man is conscious of a modern life-style that has moved from natural to developed, from rural to urban, from ‘outdoor’ to ‘indoor’ … from independent to inescapable.

His tuition came from what he observed (cattle in the rain ) – a waterlogged landscape that demanded he pick up coping skills from stoical (knowledgeable solid standing)  and patient cows (readiness to wait).

 His outdoor schoolroom was the wet of a landscape that offered protection from the elements to neither man (head as washy as a head of kale) nor beast (every dumb beast sunk above the cloot). No complaint from their massive frames (heavyweight silence) … their instinct instructed them to go on foraging however scant the reward (nosed-out sludge and puddle).

 His Iron Age life (another world) was the only alternative (unlearnable) stoically borne (to be lived by) … and unforgotten.

To his eyes progress has not brought greater happiness, has spawned a newfound contrariness amongst people waiting for machines to service their needs (check-out lines) or replenish what they have spent (cash-points) or tuning into canned music and in a world of their own: wired, far-faced smilers. 

 Exiled but proud (bulrush, head in air, far from its lough)  he feels the draw of a much preferable habitat.

  • washy: waterlogged – wishy-washy: unable able to decide, wavering
  • kale: hardy cabbage head on an erect stem
  • shed: shake off;
  • flank: side of an animal;
  • dumb: unable to speak by nature and attracting pity;
  • cloot: Scottish – cloven hoof
  • gap: space between hedges buildings;
  • nose at: thrust the snout into
  • sludge: thick, soft, wet mud;
  • live by: obey;
  • contrariness: deliberate awkwardness
  • checkout: place where supermarket purchases are paid for;
  • cash-point: on-the-street automated site which dispenses money at any time of the day or night; ATM;
  • wired: connected by wires to a piece of electronic equipment;
  • far-faced: miles away, in a world of their own;
  • stand off: keep away;
  • bulrush: tall water plant with cylindrical brown, velvety head;
  • lough: Irish lake;


  • 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;    


Decision-time approaches … Tollund Man plays his ecologically-friendly card but the modern world fails its ultimate test.

As he navigated security barriers, some using guards (check) others a hidden camera (scan) Tollund Man clung to a living emblem of his rural past (rushes roots and all bog damp), the very matter that gave strength, morale and a sense of mission as he lay on display.

His hope came to a sad end: the ambient conditions of a modern city tenement (stairwell broom cupboard) triggered decay (musty friable), took away the smells of good health (frank bouquet), reduced a living plant to a limp, soggy cluster, announced terminal decline (drowned-mouse fibres withered).

Ominously the narrative echoes the Church’s burial text: dust in my palm and in my nostrils dust.

 Tollund Man mulls option one – to persevere undeterred (shake it off) and use his own saliva to reanimate the dying reed with spit in pollen’s name and in my own.

 The decisively his bogland origins (as a man cutting turf) put an end to his foray into modernity: he stood upright (straightened) made a gesture of determination (spat on my hands) felt immediate relief (benefit) and slipped away on the first stage of a journey to somewhere else: spirited myself into the street.

We are left with two conclusions: Tollund Man knows where he is better off – for all its hardships the ‘old’ life had more to offer him – the modern world does not recognize it is under threat.

  • check: security control
  • scan: camera screening;
  • rush: brownish tall-growing waterside plant
  • stairwell: space adjacent to a staircase;
  • broom cupboard: the small space in which cleaning utensils (brush/broom) are kept; allusion to the heath-land plant (broom) seems coincidental;
  • transplant: replant in another place;
  • musty: mouldy, smelling of decay;
  • friable: easily crumbled;
  • wither: become limp, droop;
  • limp: drooping, losing its erectness;
  • cluster: clump, bunch, collection of things;
  • frank: unmistakable, honest;
  • bouquet: characteristic scent, fragrance, smell;
  • palm: inner surface of the hand;
  • spit: saliva, sometimes a gesture of work to be done;
  • pollen: fine powder carried by wind or insects that fertilizes flowers and blossoms producing fruit;
  • straighten: stand upright after bending;
  • benefit: ease, profit, gain;
  • spirit oneself: steal away, one quickly and secretly;
  • 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 [uː] Through/ roots/ Broom and of [ʌ] bunch of Tollund rushes/ cupboard/ until/ musty;
  • line (6) rings a change: assonant [i:]  green/ weed leaf [ɪ] skinned/ withered/ / limp; [au] drowned –mouse accompany paired [k] skinned stalk; frank/ bouquet ; [əʊ] whole/ 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
  •  Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • for example, the final four lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d]  nasals [m] [n], alongside sibilant variants [s] [z]  and front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and bilabials [p][b];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

Further background:

  • 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;
  • 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, not least Nerthus?
  • Seamus Heaney wrote an extract of his poem in the guest book for Silkeborg Museum in 1973 and in 1996  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…”

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