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Disturbed Earth: A Lament for the ‘Tollund Man’, and for Ireland

‘The Tollund Man’, as is his ‘sad freedom’, seems tellingly paradoxical in death – ‘naked’ and exposed, yet somehow venerated as a ‘trove’ and a ‘bridegroom to the goddess’. He is destroyed, but elevated as a sacred symbol of serenity after this sacrifice. This peaceful death is emblematic of Heaney’s concerns in this poem, as he conflates the metaphorical meaning of this death and the violent turmoil of a socially ruptured Ireland.

The description of the Tollund man’s head and eyelids as a ‘peat-brown head’ and ‘mild pods’ imparts a richness to his skin; a sensory description that is evocative of the organic softness of smooth, nutrient-rich clay and the potent ‘dark juices’ that, like ‘juice’, seem sweet and intense. Heaney in this way depicts the bog body in a sort of perverse union in death, a quasi-divine ‘bridegroom’ to the ‘goddess’ of the earth, who ‘tighten[s] her torc on him’. The word ‘tightened’ evokes that this relationship is one of ardent devotion, that it is muscular and powerful, and subsequently, Heaney depicts the bog body is experiencing a sort of sacred rebirth, with life anew in death. The alliteration in ‘tightened her torc’ imparts a steadiness of rhythm to this line, which accentuates the impression that this union is one of peace, though ferocious and ardent. As Heaney gazes at the ‘mild pods’, this close focus illuminates the scale of the body’s preservation, which indicates that Heaney is enraptured by this nature-defying corpse. The Tollund Man is emblematic of an ineffable, preservative strength and as such, he is the harbinger of Heaney’s later prayer to harness this seemingly supernatural power of the Tollund Man for rebirth in his own situation.

In contrast to the tranquillity of the Tollund Man, the ‘scattered’ ‘flesh’ of labourers that Heaney wishes to ‘germinate’ in part II is redolent with savagery and violence. Firstly, the reverence with which Heaney treats the Tollund Man due to the extent of his preservation is decimated. In praying for these particles of ‘flesh’ to ‘germinate’ like seeds, Heaney implies that they are like the ‘seeds’ ‘caked in [the Tollund Man’s] stomach’. This creates a striking visual image in which the size of the Tollund Man utterly swamps and overwhelms the meagre remains of the ‘young brothers’, whose ‘skin’ is like confetti, ‘flecked’ along the ‘sleepers’ of the railway line on which they were killed. They have been so ruthlessly massacred that they are reduced to these ‘fleck[s]’ that seem papery and lifeless in contrast with the richness of the Tollund Man’s ‘mild pods’. Heaney in this way imparts that the sort of resurrection for which he is hoping is inconceivable, and irrational, since the ‘scattered, ambushed’ remains are so distant from the wholeness and peace Heaney extols in the Tollund Man. As the skin and teeth are ‘trailed for miles along the lines’, the internal rhyming between ‘miles’ and ‘lines’ is evocative and tactile; the extended vowel sounds mirror the dragging and ‘trail[ing]’ of the corpses along the ‘lines’, and in this way the reader is sonically pulled along the ‘lines’, just like the ‘young brothers’ were, and in this way Heaney may hope to emphasize the savagery of the act, and engender an understanding of this in the reader.

Part II of the poem also marks a dramatic tonal shift from part I; dynamic verbs such as ‘risk’ force a marked contrast to the restful ‘repose’ and slow, seeping ‘juices’ of the previous stanzas. This is underlined by the forceful, alliterative plosive sounds in ‘consecrate’ which are jarring, and impart a new seething undercurrent to the poem; one of anger, disturbance, and above all, will. Heaney is now involved in the poem, emotionally challenged, as opposed to his peaceful and passive role as a voyeur in part I, as he ‘stand[s]’, entranced by the Tollund Man. In part I, Heaney says ‘I will go to Aarhus’, but as part II begins, a sense of discordance is also conveyed by the word ‘could’ in line one, as it evokes that, in contrast, action in this situation for Heaney here is merely a possibility. This immediately conjures in the reader an appreciation for the scale of the social situation in Ireland, for it is one of such austerity that Heaney feels so trapped that he is unable to act. This notion of desolation in the Irish landscape is underscored as Heaney refers to the land of Ireland as a ‘cauldron bog’. The ‘cauldron’ has connotations of the occult, and of diabolism, and in this way it is as if Ireland is the ‘cauldron’ to a coven of plotting, ominous figures setting it on a doom-filled trajectory of abhorrence. Furthermore, it also instils an idea that the very earth is poisoned and imbued with these acts of political violence. This is a particularly striking notion as Heaney treats nature with such reverence in many of his other poems, and it seems as if this beauty is inalienable. If the sumptuous ‘black butter’ of the earth (Bogland), has now been distorted into a ‘cauldron’, the audience comes to understand the magnitude of the problem; it has violated the land which Heaney holds so dear. It is therefore understandable as to why Heaney feels that his hands are tied, for the problem may now be so deeply rooted in the very fabric of Ireland, that nothing can be done. Again a sense of helplessness is encapsulated in the proposed outcome of Heaney’s ‘pray[er]’; he wishes to transfigure this ‘cauldron bog’ into a ‘holy ground’. Since the connotations of ‘cauldron’ are antithetic to all this ‘holy’ or sacred, and the sloppy, formless ‘bog’ contrasts with the steady and definite ‘ground’, this sort of transformation therefore seems implausible, and Heaney depicts that the disparity between what Ireland should be and what it currently is, is gaping, and irreconcilable.

Confirming the analogous significance of the Tollund Man is Heaney’s final proclamation that out in the ‘old man-killing parishes’ where the Tollund Man was killed, he ‘will feel lost, unhappy and at home’. The seemingly paradoxical of being both ‘lost’ and ‘at home’ is resolved in the notion that there are between Heaney’s native Ireland and Jutland – that both experience violence in the name of belief, at different times. The constancy of violence renders Heaney ‘unhappy’, but there is also a pervading sense of time’s expansiveness as the poem draws to a close. Consistent with the shifting tenses of the parts of the poem (past, present and future), the poem is all-encompassing concerning time. When Heaney refers to the Tollund Man’s death-cart as a ‘tumbril’, connections are drawn with the French revolution, in which these ‘tumbril[s]’ were used, and when Heaney describes the violence in Jutland with the archaic ‘man-killing’, the reader is transported back to pagan society, evoking a sense of the primitive nature of these deaths. Heaney is this way inexplicably establishes that violence is an unwavering, unavoidable and constant presence in life and society. While the immediacy of the events in Ireland leave him ‘unhappy’, this sense of resignation to violence seems to be the only mitigator in a poem that is sobering and confronting in its examination of the social situation in Ireland. As such, the audience is left to hope that Ireland may one day return to being ‘holy ground’.

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