In this first of six titles referred to as the ‘bog poems’ in North the voice is that of the individual, whoever he is, who has come upon the mummified corpse of a woman hidden beneath the surface of the bog in which it has been preserved. An initial ‘forensic’ unwrapping of the mummy is overtaken by the finder’s ultimate focus on what it might confirm to him about Iron Age civilisation. Citations that follow the commentary suggest some uneasiness.
The searcher’s hands come, touched (the sense of exploring fingers is paramount in the piece) by the bog-side flowers (sweetbriar and tangled vetch) before dipping beneath the surface (foraging) ignoring the possibility of valuables bagged and left as royal burial offerings (burst gizzards of coin hoards) and reaching the peat-discoloured place where the dark-bowered queen lies waiting to be examined (unpin).
Heaney’s bog-pathologist notes the techniques used to keep the bog-body in its watery cell – the pointed sticks (sharpened willow) that held it down offer no resistance (withdraws gently) releasing the body from the black maw of the peat.
The layer of skins with which the body is swaddled are folded back to reveal her head (pot of the skull) and hair preserved in some detail (damp tuck of each curl) stained by the bog (reddish as a fox’s brush). Further markings are left open – has he noted evidence of social status or tourniquet used to strangle her (gorget in the flesh of her throat)?
As the bog seeks to cling to its underwater ownership (water starts to rise) the searcher’s attention reaches beyond precious artefacts (riverbed’s washed dream of gold) to corroborate the emphasis of Iron Age civilisations on regeneration (figured in ‘Bone Dreams III’), coming to rest on the private area of the mummified body associated with fertility (bullion of her Venus bone).
Heaney’s first-person ‘Bog Queen’ of the next piece will allude to her own fertility and regret time’s reductive effect on her regenerative function.
- touch: provide both a sensual and emotional contact;
- sweetbriar: prickly, pink-flowered rose plant common across Europe;
- tangled: entwined, ravelled;
- vetch: scrambling herbaceous plant of the pea family;
- 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;
- gizzard: bulging, bag-like part of an animal’s stomach;
- hoard: stock, store;
- bower: secret, personal space; originally referring to “room, hut, dwelling, chamber”; the sense of “leafy arbour” (place enclosed by trees) is a later variant;
- unpin: unfasten, detach;
- maw: jaws of an animal;
- tuck: fold, pleat;
- 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);
- a sense of mystery prevails: the peat bog might be Danish (Heaney was mesmerised by the work of Danish anthropologist PV Glob who made initial discoveries in Jutland) or later examples from Irish peat bogs; we do not learn whether the body is there as a burial rite or human sacrifice ;
- Heaney has already alluded to the driving impulses of contemporary society in Bone Dreams, iii, future poems will allude to ritual sacrifices and the sexual appetite of the pagan goddess Nerthus;
- some feminist commentators were offended by the inferred intrusion by a male voyeur deriving sexual pleasure from the process; the views lack any understanding of Heaney’s deeper interests in Iron Age/ Celtic civilisations and what drove them;
Views from ‘Sources’:
- 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 allegedly sacrificed);
- 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)
- 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: thirteen 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;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- 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;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;