The bog-body was found by peat-cutters in April 1952 near Grauballe in Denmark.
Providing stunning close description of an iconic ‘bog body’ on show in the Moesgaard museum near Arrhus the poem reveals Heaney’s emotional responses to a piece of anthropological history.
Struck by the barbaric treatment revealed by the mummified remains Heaney turns up the volume on links between the fate of Grauballe Man and contemporary internicene violence in Northern Ireland.
The body might have emerged from a mould (as if …poured in tar). It is displayed recumbent in a bog-land setting (lies on a pillow of turf) with an expression of inner sadness (weep the black river of himself).
The poetic eye moves up and down the body offering a variety of similes to corroborate its at-oneness with the bog that preserved it – comparisons first vegetable then mineral finally animal: the wrist fibres (grain) have the texture of a tree preserved in peat (like bog-oak); the rounded ball of his heel is akin to a basalt egg; long-term immersion in peat water has left the shrivelled instep bloodless (cold as a swan’s foot) and stiff (wet swamp root).
The hips recall the features and textures of the blue-black freshwater mussel, the sharp edge (ridge) of the mollusc’s convex shell, its bulge (purse). The projections and colourings of the spine remind Heaney of a creature that abounds in his mid-Ulster river Bann and Lough Neagh (eel) conspicuous even out of sight (arrested under a glisten of mud).
Heaney works out something troubling him about the head, its unnatural shape the result of barbarous treatment inflicted upon it – its chin has become an abnormal helmet’s visor raised to reveal a gaping vent … the slashed throat of human sacrifice … skin tanned to leather yet retaining the raw deep red of elderberry.
Faced with a paradox Heaney scratches his head: here is something dead (corpse) yet for all the world a model in suspended animation (vivid cast); here is something lifeless (body) as if waiting for the moment to wake up (opaque repose). And what about his gingery (rusted) mane as exceptional as a child born with a full head of hair (mat unlikely as a foetus’s).
Heaney recalls his first sight of Grauballe Man from PV Glob’s photographic records: his delivery (head and shoulder) from Nature’s womb (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 and the vivid exhibit before his eyes (perfected in my memory) down to the most minute detail (red horn of his nails).
The poem’s mood changes abruptly: the aesthetically pleasing bog body (beauty) subjected to a nasty, sacrificial end (atrocity) iscounterbalanced on the other side of Heaney’s scales by an Ancient Roman marble sculpture on display in Rome (Dying Gaul). Sight of an Iron Age victim of tribal atrocity in 55BC or of a barbarian Untermensch unable to escape Roman imperialism (too strictly compassed on his shield) makes the same impact on the poet as contemporary barbarism (actual weight) in Northern Ireland where blindfolded victims (hooded) are put to death (slashed) and thrown away(dumped).
As the poem’s grisly final couplet reminds us cycles of death and revenge are endemic!
- pour: discharge as a liquid into a mould:’
- tar: dark thick substance that sets;
- weep: the word has more than one connotation describing the movement of liquid matter yet to solidify; an emotional response to grief;
- grain: texture;
- bog oak: ancient tree preserved in peat and black in colour;
- ball: rounded shape;
- basalt: a hard, durable rock;
- instep: part of foot between ball and ankle;
- shrink: grow smaller
- swamp: low-lying waterlogged land, bog;
- ridge: line where sloping convex edges meet;
- purse: pouch-shaped container resembling a money bag;
- arrested: held in check;
- visor: part of a helmet that covers the face;
- vent: opening that allows air or liquid to pass;
- tan: convert to leather by immersion in liquid;
- cured: preserve using salt or liquid;
- elderberry: red, bluish-black colour of the fruit of the elder tree;
- vivid: from Latin ‘full of life’, ‘alive’ L later ‘deeply coloured’;
- cast: model taken from an impression;
- rusted: stained by the iron content of the peat bog
- mat: patch of matted hair;
- foetus: unborn child still in the womb;
- bruised: discoloured injury caused by impact;
- forceps: pincers designed to hold a baby’s head to assist a birth;
- perfect: bring to completion, make as good as possible
- scales: instrument for weighing using a ‘pan’ on each side;
- horn: chosen to describe the hard keratin growth of fingernail akin to an animal’s horn;
- compass: surround on all sides;
- Dying Gaul: Ancient Roman marble of semi-recumbent statue of a dying gladiator in Rome’s Capitoline Museum
- actual: ‘real’ of course but French ‘actuel’ meaning ‘current’, ‘contemporary’;
- weight: both the sense of ‘heavy’ and ‘significant’;
- hood: prevent from seeing by use of a head covering;
- slash: cut with a sweeping movement
- dump: discard, deposit;
- 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 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;
- 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.”;
- 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.
- 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;