Heaney allegorizes an event recorded on the Moira estate (in Co Lisburn) in the Autumn of 1780 or Spring of 1781 at a time of Anglo-Scottish ‘occupation’. He voices the poem to the first bog body dug up in Ireland.
The Bog Queen’s body lies dead yet sleeping (waiting) at the interface between the peat bog (turf face) in which it is preserved and the boundary of Anglo-Scottish landownership (demesne wall), between Irish peat deposits (heathery levels) below and the non-Irish ‘Keep Out’ signs (glass-toothed stone) above.
Her body bears the marks and messages of Nature’s unseeing trespassers (braille for the creeping influences), the extreme effects of temperature – groped then cooled by the orbiting sun – consumed (through my fabrics and skins) by bad weather (seeps of winter digested me) and untutored plant growth (illiterate roots) that chewed her over (pondered) then declined (died) as they attacked soft tissue and joints (cavings of stomach and socket).
She was living in expectation (lay waiting), her brain stained by the peat (darkening) but very much alive (jar of spawn) and hatching ideas (fermenting underground dreams) alongside precious memories (Baltic amber) of her high-born Viking origins.
Beyond the extraordinary preservation detail of her simple, basic diet (bruised berries under my nails) she regrets time’s detrimental effect (vital hoard reducing) on her regenerative function (the crock of the pelvis).
Her burial trappings are in disarray : the symbol (diadem) of her royalty is falling apart (carious like rotting teeth); jewels have been lost in the bog’s descending layers (bearings of history) – her discoloured regal sash like a black glacier is frayed and tattered, puckering (wrinkling) yet retaining as if tattooed on what remains of her breasts (soft moraines) faded colourings (dyed weaves) and evidence of exotic goods brought back by Viking traders along eastern Mediterranean shores (phoenician stitchwork). Long winters were survived thanks to comforting thoughts of her Scandinavian origins (nuzzle of fjords/ at my thighs).
The mood music changes – the bog queen relates just how she came to light: violent retrieval at the hands of an unwitting native Irish turf-cutter (nest of my hair … robbed … barbered … stripped) who attempted to redeem himself by reburying her remains caringly and respectfully (veiled me again … packed coomb softly).
She delivers the sting in the tail: the responses of the planted landowners did not match those of the humble dispossessed Irishman. The ultimate violation (peer’s wife bribed him) bought the turfcutter’s conscience, paying him to sever the body from its mother bog (plait of my hair … slimy birth-cord cut).
The mummified body that saw the light of day (rose from the dark) was neither regal nor dignified – mutilated (hacked bone, skull-ware), wretched (frayed stitches, tufts) an undersold remnant of history (small gleams on the bank).
- turf-face: near vertical bank left after the removal of peat ;
- demesne: land attached to a manor house;
- glass-toothed: irregular edges as sharp as glass;
- influence: controlling force;
- braille: writing transposed into patterns of raised dots and ‘read’ by sightless people;
- groped: used to denote ‘search’ but with connotations both of clumsiness and sexual inappropriateness;
- seeps: trickles;
- illiterate: ignorant, untutored; unrefined;
- spawn: sticky egg deposit;
- ferment: brew;
- cavings: hollow sections of bone; compare ‘cave’, ‘concave’;
- socket: part of the body’s ball and socket joints, say at shoulder and hip;
- Baltic amber: reference to fossil resins from the Baltic (late 13c. in Anglo-Latin; c.1400 in English); yellowish, translucent and used in jewellery; emblematic use of a fossilised tree resin found chiefly on the shores of the Baltic Sea that washes the east coast of Jutland; amber was traded as a basic commodity along the prehistoric trade-routes, both as an ornament or because it was pleasantly odorous when burning;
- vital: originally ‘manifesting life’, ‘belonging to life’ (Latin vita); an added sense of ‘necessary’, ‘important developed later via the sense of ‘essential to life’;
- hoard: store;
- crock: earthenware pot shape;
- pelvis: frame at base of spine to which legs, hind-limbs are attached;
- diadem: jewelled headband;
- carious: black and decaying;
- floe: first used by Arctic explorers, probably from Norw. flo “layer, slab,” from O.N. flo; definite sense of water as in ‘flow’;
- bearings: direction, position relative to fixed point;
- sash: ceremonial loop of cloth round the shoulders;
- Phoenician: relating to a Semitic group that prospered and traded before 332BC;
- stitchwork: embroidered needlework
- retted: seeks to describe the patterns of woven fibres still visible on the skin; “ret ” is probably derived from Old Norse with principal meanings of “soak,” or even “rot”;
- moraine: the mounds of earth and rock pushed ahead of advancing glaciers and left behind as they retreated;
- nuzzle: associated with ‘nose’ so literally “burrow with the nose” but added sense of ‘lie snugly, comfortably’;
- fjord: Nordic reference to narrow, deep inlets from the sea;
- fledge: originally meaning “having feathers” or ”fit to fly” the word is filled here with ideas of immaturity, the need for protection and protective matter within the bog;
- swaddle: wrap;
- hide: tanned animal skin;
- hibernate: spend the winter in a dormant state;
- nest-robber: egg stealer;
- barber: (of hair) cut, trim, shear;
- veil: cover;
- coomb: (Ulster usage) soft natural materials;
- jamb: side surface of door or window;
- birth-cord: umbilical cord;
- hack: cut with rough blows;
- skull-ware: shape and contents of the skull;
- frayed: tattered and worn;
- tuft: bunch of gathered grass or hair
- 14 quatrains; lines vary in length between 2 and 8 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- 10 sentence structure with variations on punctuation and enjambment;
- The verb-tense is not past, but a continuous present;
- main weaves or clusters of assonant effect in verses 1-4: [ei] Lay waiting later repeated/ face/ Braille;[ei] between/ demesne/ between/ creeping/ feet/ seeps/ me; [e] heathery levels/ head/ digested; [əʊ] stone/ groped over;[uː]toothed/ cooled/ through/ roots; [ɪ] fabrics/ skins/ winter/ illiterate/ in;
- alveolar [l], alveolar plosive [t] frequent initially; paired bilabial [b] body/ Braille and velar [k] fabrics/ skins; cavings/ stomach/ socket;
- personification: stone has teeth; water digests solids; roots can think but have no formal education;
- (5) and (6) pick up the[ei] of cavings in brain/ nails;paired [ɑː] of darkening/ jar [ɔː] spawn/ hoard and [u] bruised/ reducing; interwoven alliterative effect of bilabial [b] bottom/ brain/ Baltic/ Bruised berries and, unusually, labio-dental fricative [v] echoing cavings: gravel/ vital/ pelvis;
- Stanzas (7) to (11) ring some changes: assonant [ai] my diadem/ like/ dyed/ thighs/ hides/ hibernated; [eə] carious/ bearings; [e] gemstones/ retted/ fledge breasts/ heavy/ wet nest; [i:] peat/ weaves/ Phoenician; alliterative effects include velar [k] variant (s) sounds in (8) plus [tʃ] stitch- and [ʃ] phoenician ; alveolar nasal [n] from phoenician in (8) meets bilabial [m] in (9); (10) heralds the return of sibilants;
- In stanzas (11) to (14) the closeness of nuzzle and swaddle is replaced by a vocabulary of violation: robbed/ barbered/ stripped/ bribed/ hacked/ frayed strong in plosive/ explosive sounds; sound effects also include [ei] spade/ veiled/ again/ frayed; [ai] bribed/ slimy/ I;
- 5 consecutive enjambed lines in (11) contribute to a slow dolente music suddenly replaced in the final lines by a staccato litany of abuses with contingent clashes of vowel sound;
- The body discovered in Ireland was deemed by some to be Viking, thereby creating a genuine, not-just-imagined connection between the 2 cultures;
- The queen of Heaney’s poem accepts the indignities of Time with fortitude and confidence in her ultimate salvation. Like the dispossessed people of her adopted home, she survived centuries of waiting by becoming at one with the land and its suffering (MP p135)
- an allegorising poem … on one level a delicately accurate account of her decay; also a symbol of disaffected native resentment biding its time underground (NC70);
- she contributes to the notion of political sacrifice that has a sexual allure;
- She is depicted as an unwilling revenant from the dead, a female version of the Sleeping Giant that will emerge to save the motherland;
- 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;
- 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;