Heaney penned this poem in September 1994 immediately following the IRA cease-fire of August 1994 that gave rise to cautious hope for Northern Ireland. Tollund Man first appeared in Wintering Out, Heaney’s third collection of 1972 and will feature again in District and Circle of 2006.
Heaney explained how he and Marie ended up on Tollund Moss (DOD (p350): I was asked to write about the IRA announcement of ceasefire for the next weekend’s Sunday Tribune. That same weekend I was also bound for Denmark to do a reading in Copenhagen University, and inevitably I was remembering the visit I’d made to Jutland twenty-one years earlier to see the Tollund Man. What happened, at any rate, was an unexpected trip to the actual bog in Tollund where the body had been found in the 1950s. My host in the English Department, Nick Rosenmeir, took this sudden notion on the Saturday afternoon, bundled his, wife and Marie and myself into his car, crossed to Jutland that evening on a ferry, put us up that night at their holiday house near Silkeborg and on the Sunday morning brought us to the actual spot where the turf cutters had dug him out.
In some respects just an ordinary day (Sunday morning) yet, both a complicated journey and a twenty-year lapse filled with personal lifetime (we had travelled far). The Jutland landscape they discovered (we stood a long time out in Tollund Moss) was not unlike (familiar) the peat bogs around Castledawson (low ground … swart water … thick grass) yet somehow in another world (hallucinatory).
DOD: ‘Hallucinatory and familiar’, you called it. SH: That’s exactly how it felt – as familiar as Toner’s Bog in the town lands of Mulhollandstown and Scribe, all named in the poem. It was like a world restored, the world of the second chance … Of our Sunday morning in Tollund, I felt a similar lightening of mood and open in of possibility … What we were experiencing, you could say, was hope rather than optimism, and that’s why I liked the complicating echo of the words ‘Sinn Fein’ in the phrase ‘ourselves again’.
Heaney picks out detail: getting about (path through Jutland fields); faint ambient noise (light traffic sound); the intermix of indigenous growth and stubby marshland trees (bog-fir grags); tidy Danish presence (swept and gated farmyard) amid Jutland’s waterlogged fens (dormant quags). Evidence too of the farming cycle (silage under wraps in its silent mound).
Close correspondences suggest a single frame (still) from Irish poet John Hewitt’s walk with his ancestors (bright ‘Townland of Peace’), Hewitt’s ‘back home’ in his mind (poem of dream farms), accurate beyond dispute (outside all contention).
Jutland’s age-old (scarecrow’s arms) embraced (stood open) the new (satellite dish in the paddock) – an ancient menhir (standing stone) resited as a feature (resituated and landscaped) rebranded olde worlde for tourists (futhark runic script in Danish and in English). Heaney heaves a sigh of ironic resignation (things had moved on).
A Danish scene not a million miles from Toner’s Bog in mid-Ulster (Mulhollandstown or Scribe), well signposted (byroads … names on them in black and white), sparsely populated by accommodating folk (user-friendly outback) in which a carefree Irish couple (we stood footloose, at home) felt released from sectarianism (beyond the tribe).
He and Marie felt like trailblazers (more scouts than strangers) familiar with dark times (ghosts who’d walked abroad) but cautiously optimistic (unfazed by light), buoyed by political developments back home (new beginning) willing it to succeed (make a go of it) – normal Irish ‘christian’ folk (alive and sinning) cautiously using direct translation of the Irish nationalist party ‘Sinn Féin’ to describe how they felt (ourselves again), proceeding without having to watch their back (free-willed again) and emphatically innocent of any guilty act (not bad).
- Tollund Moss: Heaney and his wife are in Denmark at the spot near Silkeborg in east Jutland where the first bog bodies were retrieved by P.V.Glob. The so-called Tollund Man excavated in 1950 was first of a series of bog bodies including the Grauballe Man of 1952; moss is the name for a peat bog in Northern Ireland;
- swart water: swart from OE and Gemanic is an indicator of colour – the black or darkest brown of peat-bog water;
- stilllife photography is the depiction of inanimate subject matter, most typically a small grouping of objects or a landscape;
- rushes: slender but durable marshland plant;
- bog-fir: marshland tree;
- grags: trees at once craggy and solid;
- quags: possibly shortened form of quagmire; marshy or boggy place;
- John Hewitt’s Townland of Peace published in the Bell in 1944 and beginning ‘Once walking in the county of my kindred’ celebrates the notion of walking in the Irish countryside with one’s ancestors;
- Beyond contention: without any shadow of disagreement;
- scarecrow: dummy human figure, set up to scare birds away from fields;
- satellite/ dish: bowl-shaped aerial permitting global communications via geo-stationary satellites;
- paddock: small enclosure for horses;
- standing stone: an upright menhir like many erected in prehistoric times in western Europe;
- futhark runic script: the Runic alphabet is also known as Futhark, a name composed from its first six letters namelyf, u, th, a, r, and k; runes were the ‘letters’ of this ancient Germanic alphabet;
- Mullhollandstown … Scribe: townlands in the vicinity of Heaney’s childhood home;
- byroads: minor thoroughfares;
- user-friendly: easy to follow or understand;
- outback: referring to remote and sparsely inhabited areas;
- footloose: able to travel freely and do as one pleases, freed from responsibility or other commitment;
- tribe: groups with common ties and cultures;
- scouts: information gatherers sent out in advance;
- abroad: used to denote both away in a foreign country and enjoying freedom of movement;
- unfazed: neither disconcerted nor perturbed;
- make a go: be successful;
- sinning: committing a regrettable act;
- Irish Sinn Féin; English translation ‘ourselves’;
- ourselves again: ‘I liked the complicating echo of the words ‘Sinn Fein’ in the phrase ‘ourselves again’ ;
- free-willed: describing behaviour unconstrained by fear;
- ‘The end of art is peace’ had been the motto which Heaney gave to a harvest bow in Field Work (1979). ‘Tollund’ worries about whether peace might not be “the end of art”. Heaney makes a pilgrimage to the Jutland fields immortalized in his “bog poems”. In what he once called the “old man-killing parishes” (‘Tollund Man’ in Wintering Out, 1972), he now sardonically finds ‘user-friendly outback’… In a world of awkward symmetries (a scarecrow stands opposite a satellite dish, tourist signs are in “futhark runic script / In Danish and in English”), the poem confronts the ragged, seemingly unpoetic realities of a technologized, disenchanted democracy. The poet embraces it willingly, if a little sceptically, as he faces the prospect of being ready to “make a new beginning and make a go of it”. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996
- 6 quartets in 11 sentences; short ones follow the shifts of the observer’s gaze; the final 7-line sentence records reasons for optimism;
- line length based on 10 syllables;
- rhyme scheme abba cddc maintained throughout;
- use of dialectal vocabulary to increase Irishness (‘moss’ ‘swart’); rhyming neologisms (’grags’, ‘quags’);
- ‘under wraps’, play on words: wrapped up, veiled in secrecy;
- paradox ’outback’ normally associated with the Australian wilderness but user-friendly
- good husbandry in Jutland: ‘swept and gated’;
- opposites: ‘dream’/ ‘outside contention’; scarecrow/ satellite dish;
- Danish identity: futhark/ Runic/ Danish;
- irony: ‘Things had moved on’;
- the final 3 lines expressing hope build to the emphatic ‘not bad’;
- 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:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first quartet, for example stirs together sibilant sound [s] and alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside alveolar [l] bilabial [w] and nasals [m] [n];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ ang