Heaney concentrates his creative attention on a ‘Mother Earth’ figure of Norse legend (Nerthus) in whose name the Tollund bog-body of the previous poem was allegedly sacrificed.

Her pagan beauty is set in tree form, within a sexually suggestive meld of landscape and female symbol of fertility: ash-fork staked in peat. The eye is drawn from mildly provocative long-distance shot (‘fork’) towards textures and shape suggestive of the female reproductive zone: Its long grains gathering to the gouged split.

Jutland and Ulster landscapes have much in common; why not, then, a tree tolerant of all extremes of climate (A seasoned, unsleeved taker of the weather) preserved in an Ulster bog identical in all but the language to describe it: Where kesh and loaning finger out to heather.

  • Nerthus : a goddess associated with fertility first attested by Tacitus, the first century AD Roman historian, in his Germania: remote tribes, united by their veneration of the goddess maintained a sacred grove along with a holy cart drawn by heifers. Everywhere the goddess went, she was met with celebration, hospitality, and peace. Tacitus adds that the goddess, the cart, and the cloth were washed by slaves in a secluded lake. The slaves were then drowned; Heaney will pursue the Nerthus theme in part III of Kinship in the North collection, once again twinning pagan goddess and landscape and with the same sexual overtones;
  • ash-fork: ‘v’-shaped length of ash tree;
  • grain: fibre pattern on the surface of cut wood;
  • gouged: scooped out, hollowed out;
  • seasoned: wood left in the open air over time to lower its moisture content;
  • kesh: (Northern Irish dialect) a causeway (NC34);
  • loaning: (Northern Irish dialect) an uncultivated space between fields (NC34); pathway;
  • (Heaney) ‘is beginning (in ‘The Tollund Man’), to discover that suggestive analogy between Glob’s bog-bodies and the victims of Irish political violence which culminates in the extended mythologiz­ing of the ‘bog poems’ of North … Heaney emphasizes the deeper imaginative connect­ion he is making when he publishes, alongside ‘The Tollund Man’, the very short poem ‘Nerthus’. Nerthus is the fertility goddess to whom Glob argues, some of the Iron Age people preserved in the peat bogs of Jutland were ritual sacrifices; their murder in winter and the disposal of their bodies in bogs sacred to the goddess, would ensure the fertility of the crops the following spring … The poem ( ) implicitly translates the goddess out of Iron Age Jutland into modern Northern Ireland when the landscape she stands in is defined in Northern dialect terms’ (NC34);
  • In his book, The Bog People, (PV Glob) describes the shock of finding himself “face to face with an Iron Age man … deposited in the bog as a sacrifice to the powers that rule men’s destinies.” Chief amongst these powers was the fertility goddess, Nerthus … It was for her sake that the Tollund Man endured his death by hanging, so that the “great ritual drama” of the seasons might continue. Heaney was quick to recognise the poetic potential of Glob’s book, and to utilise its anthropological insights in interpreting the present state of Ireland’ (MP106);
  • 2 couplets in 2 sentences (one separated b(;) ; lines of 10 syllables rhymed aa bb;

  • comparison: Nerthus/ tree protruding from the bog;

  • the sexuality of the pagan divinity of Tollund Man is reiterated in the poem dedicated to her;

  • male and female ‘couplings’ are alluded to: ’staked’, ‘split’; also some knowledge of timber markings;

  • Nerthus’ experience, freedom and opportunism reported;

  • finger out’: both discernible water courses (‘kesh’) and tracks (‘loaning’) lead only into heather scrub;

  • 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: twelve 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:
  • in its short life the piece brings a rich cross section of consonants made in all part so the mouth;
  • 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/ anger.

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment