The Digging Skeleton

Scholars and students have long set themselves the challenge of translation. Heaney show-cases his skills in this version  after Baudelaire. He is loyal to Baudelaire’s picture of human misery and his rejection of belief in a better life after death.

In questioning the poetic charge generated in Heaney’s mind by a French poem from 1875 it is perhaps enough to suggest that he was only too conscious of the Irish labouring to dig up potatoes that would poison up to a million of them during the Great Irish Famine only a decade before Baudelaire’s poem was published. The poverty and starvation of a whole race is not curtailed, both poets suggest, by death.


The speaker is strolling along the dusty quays of the Seine, past the stalls of Parisian ‘bouquinistes’ still to be found there more than 150 years later. He has chanced upon anatomical plates as he flicks the pages of books yellowed like mummies slumbering in forgotten crates.

The sight of the human body reduced to skeleton possesses an odd beauty, its illustrator deemed gravely sensitive to the sad mementoes of anatomy; the plates represent a form of art: mysterious candid studies including shaded areas of soft tissue, red slobland around the bones;

He selects an example for its particular subject matter: flayed men and skeletons digging the earth like navvies.


The speaker addresses this sad gang of apparitions returned from the grave, their skinned muscles like plaited sedge, their body posture indicative of exacting labour: spines hooped. The notion of them working thus in perpetuity generates respect: patient ones.

Faced with the incongruous paradox of dead men working unrelenting soil the speaker questions what might conceivably be the purpose of their work (what barns/ for you to fill) and the nature of a ‘gang-master’ requiring cemetery labour from the boneyard.

Their significance emerges: they are emblems of the truth; the grave brings no respite to death’s lifers on day-release.

The story they tell is brutally dismissive of religious promises (reward of faith in rest eternal). Notions of eternal repose are dismissed as nonsense (even death lies  the void deceives). Euphemism is falsehood … comparisons with autumn leaves that fall to sleep in peace bring no comfort.

The skeletons deplore the traitor breath that breathes life into the burial clay sending them back into the world (abroad).

Lest anyone think otherwise, death comes at a price (by the sweat of our stripped brows we earn our deaths), a perpetual labour repeatedly confirmed by ‘living’ pain (when the bleeding instep finds its spade).

  • The pieces follow the same pattern as Baudelaire’s ‘Le Squelette Laboureur’ (44 of Les Fleurs du Mal); Charles Baudelaire was 19c French poet; world-weary; fascinated by the dark side of life and human nature, ever in search of new experiences, prepared even to adopt a degenerate life-style. The ‘beauty’ (fleurs) of his poems contrasts starkly with the dark, at times despairing, circumstances (mal) that inspired them; the original text and an alternative version in English follow;
  • This is a poem about human misery persisting beyond the grave (NC55); chillingly appropriate to the bodies preserved for so long in the Danish bogs (NC55)
  • For motives of his own Heaney introduces elements (reward of faith …/We do not fall like autumn leaves/ … We earn our deaths) not present in Baudelaire’s original; his version produces a slightly different poem thanks to the poet’s licence to vary.
  • plates: originally ‘thin sheets of metal’ the term came to refer to illustrations on special paper and named as such in books;
  • gravely: the apparent pun alludes to the seriousness of the illustrator within the wider context of the ‘graveyard’;
  • slobland: Heaney seems to have coined a word that contains the idea of “mud, muddy land,” from Ir. slab “mud” and the unpleasant liquidity of ‘slobber’ used to describe areas of soft tissue;
  • flayed: double connection unites the idea of ‘removing the skin from’ and ‘whipping’;
  • navvies: originally referring to “labourers on a canal or railroad,” using the colloquial shortening of  ‘navigator’ the word comes to refer to any men engaged in heavy manual work;
  • Heaney varies his version to chime with the Celtic flavours of North: for example, his plaited sedge is a natural material that will feed into the bog sequence.
  • Both pieces are written in quatrains based around lines of 8 syllables; the rhyme scheme abba cddc carries through;
  • I sees frequent use of enjambment within its single sentence structure;
  • II has 7 sentences including questions; those seeking to undermine belief are succinct;
  • further sound effects in I: assonant [ɒ] –tomical/ along/ forgotten/ odd/ responded/ anatomy; [ʌ] dusty/ Among/ mummies Slumbering/ touched/ studies; [æ] anatomical/ among/ as/ had/ sad/ anatomy/ candid/ around/ navvies; [ei] plates/ crates/ illustrator/ gravely/ flayed; alliterative frequency of velar plosive [k] anatomical/ quays/ books/ crates and bilabial nasal [m] anatomical/ Among/ mummies Slumbering later Mementoes/ anatomy/ Mysterious;
  • II rings certain sound changes: [æ] Sad gang of apparitions/ plaited/ dragged [e] sedge/ edge/ tell/ unrelenting/ there/ emblems/ Death’s/ cell/ tellrest eternal/ breath/ sends/ sweat/ deaths/ instep [ei] spade/ patient/ labour/ break/ faith/ traitor/ clay/ spade[ɑː] hard/ barns/ farmer/ -yard/ are; [i:] even/ deceives/ leaves/ sleep in peace/ bleeding;
  • II(i) combines alliterative sibilants and voiceless bilabial plosive [p]; ii introduces voiced bilabial [b];
  • iii offers the oxymoron Death’s lifers (lifer refers colloquially to a person sentenced to life imprisonment); also alliterative sibilants and plosive [t] both produced in the same area of the mouth, carried through with slight variations into iv and the sibilants into v and beats of alveolar plosive [d] in the final lines;
  • synonyms: flayed/ skinned/ stripped; dragged/ hauled;
  • allusions to death, itself repeated: rest eternal/ void/ sleep in peace/ repose;
  • 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: fifteen 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;

An alternative published version:

I In the anatomical plates/ displayed on the dusty quays/ where many a dry book sleeps/ mummified, as in ancient days,/ drawings to which the gravity/ and skill of some past artist,/ despite the gloomy subject/ have communicated beauty,/ you’ll see, and it renders those/ gruesome mysteries more complete,/ flayed men, and skeletons posed, / farm-hands, digging the soil at their feet.
II Peasants, dour and resigned,/ convicts pressed from the grave,/ what’s the strange harvest, say,/ for which you hack the ground,/ bending your backbones there,/ flexing each fleshless sinew,/ what farmer’s barn must you/ labour to fill with such care?/ Do you seek to show – by that pure,/ and terrible, emblem of too hard/ a fate! – that even in the bone-yard/ the promised sleep’s far from sure:/ that even the void’s a traitor:/ that even Death tells us lies,/ that in some land new to our eyes,/ we must, perhaps, alas, forever,/ and ever, and ever, eternally,/ wield there the heavy spade,/ scrape the dull earth, its blade/ beneath our naked, bleeding feet?  Unknown author; source

Le Squelette Laboureur – the Baudelaire original  from ‘Les Flurs du Mal’ (1857)

I Dans les planches d’anatomie/ Qui traînent sur ces quais poudreux/ Où maint livre cadavéreux/ Dort comme une antique momie,

Dessins auxquels la gravité/ Et le savoir d’un vieil artiste,/ Bien que le sujet en soit triste,/ Ont communiqué la Beauté,

On voit, ce qui rend plus completes/ Ces mystérieuses horreurs,/ Bêchant comme des laboureurs,/ Des Écorchés et des Squelettes.

II De ce terrain que vous fouillez,/ Manants résignés et funèbres,/ De tout l’effort de vos vertèbres,/ Ou de vos muscles dépouillés,

Dites, quelle moisson étrange,/ Forçats arrachés au charnier,/ Tirez-vous, et de quel fermier/ Avez-vous à remplir la grange ?

Voulez-vous (d’un destin trop dur/ Épouvantable et clair emblème !)/ Montrer que dans la fosse meme/ Le sommeil promis n’est pas sûr ;

Qu’envers nous le Néant est traître ;/ Que tout, même la Mort, nous ment,/ Et que sempiternellement,/ Hélas! il nous faudra peut-être

Dans quelque pays inconnu/ Écorcher la terre revêche/ Et pousser une lourde bêche/ Sous notre pied sanglant et nu ?

2 thoughts on “The Digging Skeleton

  1. The word “slobland” can be found in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man “…as he passed the Sloblands of Fairview…” p.190 Penguin Modern Classics.

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