Bogland

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  • Bogland
    • he poem comprises seven four-line unrhymed stanzas. The poem is dedicated to T P Flanagan (1929-2011), a landscape artist and personal friend of Seamus Heaney whose vision and analysis of the Irish countryside was a major influence on him.
      • The two would often explore a place together, with Flanagan capturing a scene on canvas and Heaney “seeing” it in words.
    • The poem begins with a negative statement: “We have no prairies / To slice a big sun at evening”, which immediately draws a contrast between the Irish scene and that of the wide open spaces of North America.
      • Whereas an American observer might interpret the seemingly infinite expanse as a symbol of unfettered progress and ambition, an Irishman will have a more limited vision.
        • In Ireland, the view “Is wooed into the cyclop’s eye / Of a tarn” (a tarn being a pond or small lake of water stained black by the peat of the bog).
      • The final line, “The wet centre is bottomless”, implies that the search for the past can go on for ever. But is this a good thing or not? The poet does not draw a definite conclusion on this point, and the hints seem to be that what will be discovered will be of academic rather than practical benefit.
        • The discoveries mentioned in the poem, namely empty skeletons and inedible butter, are curiosities and of considerable interest in their own right, but do they have any real significance for Ireland’s future? Seamus Heaney seems to regret that the vision of the Irish is “wooed into the cyclop’s eye” of the past rather than the future.
    • The bog is the preserver of many things, including the remote past. A symbol of this is given in the third stanza, in the shape of the “Great Irish Elk”, a skeleton of which has been dug up and is now on display in a museum as “An astounding crate full of air”.
      • There is therefore a question mark over this find; it looks magnificent (indeed, the antlers of Megaloceros giganteus had a span of up to nine feet), but it contains nothing of importance. Likewise, what other aspects of Ireland’s past have no real meaning in the present, other than what might be imagined?
        • The fourth stanza mentions another preservation, namely that of hundred-year-old butter, which, being a manmade object, symbolises the works of Irish people of the past that have not been lost to time. The works of today’s generations might likewise expect to live into the future, preserved by the “kind, black butter” of the bog.
          • However, the bog produces nothing of real value. It has missed “its last definition / By millions of years”, by which is meant that, although peat can be dried out and burned for fuel, it is far less efficient as a heat source than coal, which is only formed after peat bogs have become buried under other strata and been subjected to millions of years of pressure. Hence Irish people of the conceivable future will “never dig coal here”.
            • The function of the bog is therefore to be a conduit to the past, in which the most valuable thing is knowledge. “Our pioneers”, in contrast to those of 19th century America who set off westwards across the prairies, go “inwards and downwards” to explore the past rather than create the future.

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