The Grauballe Man

The piece provides stunning close description of an iconic ‘bog body’ on display and reveals the poet’s emotional responses to it. The notion of man’s barbaric treatment of his fellows is never far away; associated ideas link the fate of Grauballe Man with contemporary events in Ulster.

The body might have emerged from a mould As if …poured/ in tar. It is posed in bogland décor: he lies on a pillow of turf; the face expresses an inner sadness, appearing to weep/ the black river of himself.

The observer’s eye ranges up and down the body; its at-oneness with the bog that preserved it are striking; similes of comparison are vegetable then mineral finally animal: the fibres of the body’s wrists have a texture of tree bark: grain…/ like bog-oak; the nubbed ball of his heel resembles a basalt egg.

The wild life inhabiting the bog pools has left its mark: as a result of long-term immersion in water the shrunken instep is cold as a swan’s foot or a wet swamp root; hips share the features and textures of the freshwater mussel. The comparison is vividly descriptive: the ridge of the mollusc’s shell; its wrinkled resemblance to the leathery money-bag (purse). The protrusion and colourings of the spine are discernible through the skin like a motionless eel arrested/ under a glisten of mud.

Focus settles on the head, its unnatural shape caused by the barbarous treatment inflicted upon it: its chin resembling a helmet’s visor/ raised to reveal the slashed throat of human sacrifice, its flesh turned leathery yet retaining the raw tinge of elderberry.

The narrator questions the distinction between corpse and body: between the sharp featured corpse of vivid cast and the body as if in suspended animation (the Bog Queen is portrayed as both dead and not dead), waiting in opaque repose, its gingery rusted mane as unusual as a baby born with a full head of hair: a mat unlikely as a foetus’s.

Heaney recalls his first sight of PV Glob’s photographic records of Grauballe Man in the process of retrieval, a head and shoulder / out of the peat bearing the marks of a new-born after a difficult birth bruised like a forceps baby. The grainy image he saw has become a vivid exhibit before his eyes perfected in my memory with the most minute detail: down to the red horn/ of his nails.

The poem’s mood changes abruptly: the same scales that an anthropologist or nurse might use to record detail become the measurers of a grimmer reality: Grauballe Man and his sculpted counterpart the ‘Dying Gaul’ are hung in the scales as counter-weights, things of beauty and victims of atrocity.

The poem’s grisly conclusion awakens us to current outrage. Any balance in favour of things of visual beauty (the ‘beautiful’ remains of a victim of tribal atrocity in 55BC or the dignified beauty of a dying barbarian too strictly compassed/ on his shield, victim of Roman imperialism) is more than offset by the sight of the barbarism inflicted on contemporary victims of sectarian atrocity in Ulster the actual weight/ of each hooded victim,/ slashed and dumped.

  • This bog-body was found by peat-cutters in April 1952 near Grauballe in Denmark; he is currently on show in the Moesgaard museum near Arrhus in Denmark;

  • the nematode web-site offers the following insights: “an examination by the professor of forensic medicine at Aarhus University at the time of his discovery concluded “This most unusually well preserved body has, as a result of the particular composition of the earth in which it has lain, undergone a process of conservation which appears to resemble most closely a tanning. This has made the skin firm and resistant … and at the same time the bones have been subjected to a decalcification process which has left them soft and capable of being bent and flattened, as has happened, for example with the bones of the head. On the front of the neck was found a large wound stretching from ear to ear. It lies high up the throat, and the edges are moderately smooth … probably caused by several cuts inflicted by a second person. Grauballe man’s hands and fingers- were preserved so perfectly that fingerprints could be taken- showed/ There is nothing unusual about the fingerprints obtained/ The hands of the Grauballe Man showed no sign of hard manual labour/ Radioactive-carbon tests carried out on the body dated Grauballe man at around 55 B.C., making him roughly a contemporary of Julius Caesar.”;

  • weep: the word has more than one connotation describing the movement of liquid matter yet to solidify; an emotional response to grief;

  • basalt: a hard, durable rock

  • purse: the word has more than one connotation: a leather money container; a wrinkling of the lips

  • mat: a noun created to describe ‘matted hair’, entangled in a thick mass

  • horn: chosen to describe the hard growth of the finger nail akin to an animal’s horn;

  • actual: ‘real’ of course but French ‘actuel’ meaning ‘current’, ‘contemporary’;

  • weight: both the sense of ‘heavy’ and ‘significant’;

  • the piece contains differently constructed similes: As if/ is like/ cold as/ hips are/ chin is a visor/ bruised like;

  • 12 quatrains in a 10-sentence structure; variable line length between 3 and 7 syllables;

  • no rhyme scheme; final words in each line might repeat a consonant: foot/ root; visor/ vent etc. or offset a vowel sound: photograph/ shoulder; note 1 rhyme: nails/ scales;

  • sentences are largely short in length except for the final 21 line structure; enjambment plays a role in the flow and rhythm of the piece: some middle sentences are totally enjambed;

  • sound effects: (sentence 1) runs with [æ] of the title: Grauballe Man/ As/ black adding [ɪ] if/ in/ pillow/ river/ himself and [i:] seems/ weep; alliterative flavours of bilabial plosive [p] and labio-dental [f];

  • (s.2) offers assonant [ei] grain/ basalt; consonant bilabial plosive [b] carries through from black to basalt;

  • (s.3) plays with variant vowel (o) sounds: compare cold/ foot/ or/ root; the sibilant in basalt provides a reopeated alliterative effect;

  • (s.4) adds aspirate [h] examples, picking up the earlier [ʌ] sound in shrunk via mussel/ under/ mud; [ɪ] earlier instep is reinforced: hips/ ridge/ glisten;

  • (s.5)maintains the assonant[ɪ] lifts/ chin/ is/ his alongside labio-dental [v] and alveolar [t] from lifts to toughened; also [æ] echo of slashed/ tanned;

  • sentences (6)(7) and (8) interweave alliterative velar [k] of cured/ dark/corpse/ cast/ opaque [əʊ] opens/ repose[ɪ] inward/ will/ his vivid/ will/ his [uː] Who/ to/ Who; (s.9) [ʌ] rusted/ unlikely/ foetus;

  • the final sentence includes pairs chains or clusters of assonance: [ɪ] twisted/ in/ with/ strictly/ his victim [ei] face/ baby/ nails/ scales/ weight[əʊ] photograph/ shoulder [i:] peat/ shield [au] out/ now/ down [ʊə] forceps/ horn [ʌ] hung/ hooded/ dumped; alliterative effects combine labio-dental [f] Face/ photograph/ forceps/ perfected with sibilant [s], bilabial [p]peat, forceps/ perfected, later [k] strictly compassed/ actual/ victim

  • the final quatrain leads ultimately to one of the starkest, most memorable images in the collection: each hooded victim, slashed and dumped with its triplet of alveolar [t] sounds;

  • For a close 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 gives some idea of the colours, shapes and textures that faced Heaney in the challenge of transposing vivid visual images into word;

  • The Dying Gaul is the dignified sculpture of a mortally wounded Gallic warrior regarded by the Romans as a barbarian but portrayed as a ‘noble savage’; it is to be found in Rome’s Capitoline Museum;

  • Heaney was influenced by Danish anthropologist PV Glob’s book, ‘The Bog People’ (1967) which showed photographs of gradual removal of bodies from the Jutland bog; the poet views it as ‘rebirth’ and the body becomes an icon;

  • an exemplary instance of the closeness between ‘beauty’ and ‘atrocity’ (NC59) and first of 2 poems showing Heaney’s perturbedly ambiguous responses (NC71);

  • The poem moves from allegory to direct analogies between bog people and contemporary victims of sectarian atrocity (NC71);

  • Heaney selects ‘The Dying Gaul’ as an image of heroic death at the hands of imperialists to show how Art is and can be used to depict brutal political reality.