Commenting on the relationship between his first two collections to DOD (p.98) Heaney acknowledged some new ventures: I don’t see all that much ‘development’ in Door into the Dark; it’s more a matter of trying out and spreading out … spreading out from Toner’s Bog in Bellaghy parish to ‘Bogland’ in general.
He added that placing the poem at end of Door into the Dark pointed forward to his further use of the bog as a metaphor. The piece itself it had been given, had come freely, had arrived out of old layers of lore and language and felt completely trustworthy as a poem (DOD90) … From the moment I wrote it, I felt promise in ‘Bogland’. Without having any clear notion of where it would lead or even whether I would go back to the subject, I realized that new co-ordinates had been established. Door jambs with an open sky behind them rather than the dark … self-forgetfulness, then coming to something different. The kind of thing you wish could happen all the time. It seemed the right poem to close with since it didn’t seem to stop after the last line.
MP 61 Heaney’s second volume, Door into the Dark, concludes with ‘Bogland’, a poem which embodies what had gone before and anticipates the future direction of his poetry, looking forward to the place-name and bog poems of Wintering Out and North. Like so much of his first book, it asserts the author’s sense of affinity and continuity with his cultural forbears. It takes pleasure in the particularity of the Irish landscape, which seems full of resilience and fecundity, and transmutes Ireland’s richest resource in economic terms into a symbol for the imagination’s potential.
MP88 the bog ceases to be merely a physical or geographical phenomenon; it has come to embody a huge span of time, since, as Kavanagh wrote, ‘A turf bog is a history of the world from the time of Noah’,(‘The Green Fool’) … It is both grave and reliquary, hoarding the treasures of its past, then, like an arbitrary, but beneficent goddess – or poet? – yielding up its mysteries and miracles, like the elk and the butter … The poem’s climax celebrates the primacy of water, and the endless potential, the bottomless well of the imagination. Writing at a time when prejudice was hardening in each community and ‘neighbourly murders’ were at hand, he proffered the assuaging, purifying gift of water and of Art, a spiritualised landscape and language, the common inheritance of all the Irish people. Having found in the bog a door into ‘the dark rich places of the human psyche’ … Heaney crossed the threshold in Wintering Out and North with conspicuous success. On the other side, along with those ‘dark rich places’, lay brutality and violence beyond words.
NC 19 Heaney said of ‘Bogland that it was ‘the first poem of mine that I felt had the status of symbol in some way; it wasn’t trapped in its own anecdote, or its own closing-off: it seemed to have some kind of wind blowing through it that could carry on‘;
MP (from p.87) reports the special circumstances that brought together two creative spirits, Heaney and Terry Flanagan, in Irish bogland:
In the autumn of 1968, the painter T. P. Flanagan and his wife, Sheelagh, invited the Heaneys to spend some time with them at McFadden’s Hotel in Gortahork, Co. Donegal. While their wives looked after the children, poet and painter ‘escaped’ for trips to look at the Donegal landscape. These were casual ‘jaunts’, but Flanagan would stop the car at times to sketch. Between them there was ‘an unvoiced decision not to discuss the landscape’, the recognition that each must ‘preserve his isolation’ as he examined the bogland scenery. Flanagan informed me that he was unwilling to show Heaney even the outline of a sketch, since any definition might endanger the success of the ‘individual imagination’s wrestle with its subject’ … Listening to Flanagan describing his own attitudes to the bogland, one can easily recognise the affinity of spirit linking Heaney and his fellow Ulster artist. The painter described his attraction to ‘the fundamentals of Irish landscape’, and his love of the moistness, the softness of the bog, its fecundity, its femininity, its connectedness with a pre-Christian, primeval past … he delighted in the ‘visual surprise’ of the bogland … His awe at the bogland did not spring so much from its size or colour, but from his ‘sense of its ancient life’ … Heaney dedicated his poem ‘Bogland’ to this painter friend, whose familiar, he writes, must be ‘Oisin or Wandering Aengus.’ In a letter … Heaney contrasted the two men’s responses to the ‘benign and solitary landscape’ … I think I did the ‘Bogland’ poem independently, but the whole feeling of shared pleasure in the landscape, the bleakness and the bareness was a shared one. Terry, however, was very much a visual, painterly reactor: I don’t think he had much politicohistorico interest in it as an image.
Seamus Heaney said of his bog pictures: ‘what invites the eye back again and again is the fetch of water and air, their mutual flirtation, their eternal triangle with a moody light.’
Possibly responding to Theodore Roetke’s ‘In Praise of Prairie’, Heaney focuses on the shared Irish landscape (we) which possesses none of the vast wide-open spaces of the New World (no prairies) or renderings of big sky at sundown (slice a big sun at evening).
Heaney acknowledges (eye concedes) that his Irish field of vision is less expansive in scope (encroaching horizon) and drawn enticingly (wooed) towards a watery nexus (cyclops’ eye of a tarn). An island (our) without marked boundaries (unfenced country) is bonded by peat-land (bog) that dries and forms an ever stiffer outer layer (keeps crusting) as one day merges into the next (between … sights of the sun).
Bogland’s miraculous properties preserved an ancient creature (skeleton of the Great Irish Elk), its bones recovered and reconstructed (set it up), its soft tissue eaten away over 13 millennia (astounding crate full of air). Equally impressive: recovered dairy produce (butter) stored (sunk under) and long forgotten (more than a hundred years) was still recognizable for its taste (salty) and colour (white).
The poet describes bogland’s nature as obliging (ground itself is kind), sustaining (black butter melting), receptive (opening underfoot), at an early stage (missing … by millions of years) of its geological consummation (last definition) and final deposits (never dig coal here).
Bogland gives back what fell into its clutches: soaked remnants (waterlogged trunks) of fallen grandeur (great firs) no longer able to support themselves (soft as pulp).
The collection’s concluding lines salute the succeeding generations of peat diggers known to Heaney since childhood (his own grandfather included) celebrated in ‘Digging’ the first poem of Death of a Naturalist – those who blazed the trail (our pioneers), who engaged with vigour (striking) in the on-going digging process (inwards and downwards) excavators of Irish history enclosed in every descending stratum (every layer they strip) and evidence of previous human presence (camped on before).
The collection’s coda sounds a warning bell: fenland was riddled with deep cavities (bogholes) formed by percolating water (Atlantic seepage). These life-threatening traps his parents warned him to avoid at all costs when he was small (wet centre is bottomless) return us full circle to Night Piece and its scaresome ‘door into the dark’.
- Flanagan, T. P. [Terry] (1929-2011): Painter, principally of landscapes; born Enniskillen; dedicatee of the current poem; Head of the Art Department at St Mary’s College of Education, Belfast (1965-83), where he first met Seamus Heaney;
- prairie: large open area of grassland, especially in North America and Canada
- slice: divide, cut with a knife;
- concede: give way to, yield;
- encroach: invade, muscle in;
- woo: entice;
- cyclops: reference to the savage one-eyed monster from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’;
- tarn: small mountain lake;
- crust: form a hard outer layer;
- between the sight of the sun: on a day-by-day basis;
- Great Irish Elk: The Irish elk is known from abundant skeletal remains which have been found in bogs in Ireland Most remains of the Irish elk are known from the Late Pleistocene. A large proportion of the known remains of M. giganteus are from Ireland, which mostly date to the Allerød oscillation near the end of the Late Pleistocene around 13,000 years ago. Over 100 individuals have been found in Ballybetagh Bog near Dublin; it bears little resemblance with modern elk;
- set up: reconstruct the skeleton into its original shape;
- crate: rigid framework;
- definition: use here covers both the original Latin notion of boundary and the act of stating what something means;
- coal: combustible black rock formed from peat subjected to the heat and pressure of deep burial over millions of years;
- pulp: soft wet mass of matter;
- pioneers: trailblazers
- camped on: bears the evidential remains of a previous age:
- seepage: slow percolation of liquid
- bottomless: reference to a hole whose bottom cannot be seen or found; an abyss, hell; by extension something which is unfathomable;
- 6 quatrains (Q) in 10 sentences (S) ; variable line length of 5-9 syllables;
- rhyme scheme abab cdcd;
- the balance of punctuation and enjambment dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential, governing pace or pause; overall the piece is strongly enjambed;
- 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;
- the first two stanzas are dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d ], nasals [n] [m] and sibilants [s] [z] alongside front of mouth sounds: breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f][v]; these are supported by velar plosives [k] [g];