Analysis of two poems to illustrate Heaney’s feelings of uncertainty
Most, if not all, of Heaney’s poems in ‘Wintering Out’ describe Heaney’s uncertainty towards religion and his home land, Northern Ireland.
“The Tollund Man” and “Westering” best illustrate these uncertainties.
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“The Tollund Man” is about a body found in a bog that has been preserved for hundreds and thousands of years. The body was a sacrifice made to the Pagan Goddess of fertility, otherwise known as the earth. The tannic acid in the bog preserved the body, replacing the skin with a thick, brown, leather like layer. In this particular poem, Heaney looks beyond the body being preserved by the tannic acid and questions whether the Tollund Man was more than a man. We begin to realize Heaney’s uncertainty towards the Christian religion.
-..his peat-brown head, the mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
Here, he describes the Tollund Man’s appearance. He goes on to describe how he feels the Tollund Man ended up in the bog.
– Naked except for the cap, noose and girdled, I will
Stand a long time. Bridegroom to the goddess, she
Tightened her torc on him…
He talks about the Tollund Man as a Pagan sacrifice. He goes into the
Past to learn more about the Tollund Man. He feels the need to know more about the Tollund Man because he is his new inspiration.
-..could risk blasphemy
because he compares the Tollund Man with God. Heaney uses religious imagery throughout the poem, perhaps to show that he is replacing Christ wit the Tollund Man.
– Those dark juices working Him to a saint’s kept body…
He even uses a capital letter at the beginning of ‘Him’ when talking about the Tollund Man, as you would do with God.
He then goes onto talk about Northern Ireland. He not only feels lost in religion but his bond with his mother land has also weakened.
– Consecrate the cauldron bog,
Our holy ground and pray Him to germinate….
Heaney is substituting the Patron Saint of Northern Ireland with
the Tollund Man. As he says before
– I could risk blasphemy
Heaney is risking calling the Tollund Man a saint. When he talks about the ‘holy ground’, he is referring to Ireland. The Tollund Man, in a sense, is his new idol. He looks up to him and if possible is worshipping him.
First Heaney, substitutes the Tollund Man towards religion than towards his homeland. It is as though he has lost all hope, and certainty. He cannot take the conflict and war that Christianity is leading many people to in his homeland-Ireland. He wants to move on.
Heaney uses very graphic language when describing the atrocities in the name of religion. He makes us, the reader, fell as though we are there witnessing these atrocities and cannot do anything to stop them. We can relate to the victims’ families-they were there but could do nothing to stop the murders from happening.
– The scattered, ambushed flesh of labourers, stockinged
Corpses laid out in the farmyards…
The scattered flesh represents the atrocities, which were scattered everywhere over Northern Ireland. He subconsciously asks how can these people call themselves Christians? Christianity is about love and forgiveness, not about murdering and fighting. Even though these people are fighting over religion, it is as though they have forgotten all about their religion’s teachings. All this hate has clogged up their minds and blurred their visions.
– Tell-tale skin and teeth flecking the sleepers of four
Young brothers, trailed for miles along the lines.
He uses visual imagery, so we can picture the ‘skin and teeth’ of the four young brothers’ along the railway tracks. And in some respects, we can feel the pain. When somebody runs their nails down a black board, most people feel a cold shiver. Similarly, when Heaney talks about the
– Tell-tale skin and teeth flecking the sleepers….
we feel a shiver, picturing a body scraping along metal railway lines, and the teeth, face down, being pulled out of their gums.
Heaney also uses poetic techniques such as metaphors, onomatopoeia, alliteration and simile.
– Tell-tale skin and teeth (Alliteration)
Using these poetic techniques makes the poem more creative and stretches the reader’s imagination. We are given a lot of visual imagery, so that we can picture the scenes of war and atrocities. Heaney wants us to be there and understand why he is looking elsewhere for comfort and advice-why he is looking towards the Tollund Man for inspiration.
The structure of the poem is mainly in a tall, straight column, the shape of a tall, thin man. There are four lines per stanza. The poem is split into three parts to show the changes he goes through in religion, home and how he feels he can make things better-by moving away from both of them.
In summary, Heaney uses religious language and imagery and compares it with images of war. He takes us to the moments in time when these atrocities in the name of religion were being committed. He makes us feel the same as he does-how can these people call themselves Christians? They have lost their basic beliefs of love and forgiveness and made up their own rules, and in a sense, made up their own religion. They have the same beliefs but still feel bound to fight because they have different ways of practicing those beliefs.
Heaney feels isolated from religion. However, the fact that all these atrocities are happening on his homeland make him feel further away from his country and makes him want to get away from there, which he talks about in “Westering”.
As he moves further away from religion and home, he moves closer towards the Tollund Man. He begins to talk about ‘risking blasphemy’ by replacing the Patron Saint of Northern Ireland with him. He even gives the Tollund Man a God-like status by using a capital H every time he talks about him, similar to when we write God.
Heaney’s uncertainty for religion is displayed throughout this poem. However, in “Westering” his need to get away from his homeland is shown even more, when he finally escapes Northern Ireland.
– I sit under Rand McNally’s ‘Official Map of the Moon’
Heaney is sitting in a pub called Rand McNally’s, in California. The ‘Official Map of the Moon’ is obviously Irish humour as the moon has not yet been fully discovered enough to make a map of it.
Even though Heaney is in California, everything around him is Irish.
– Recalling the last night in Donegal, my shadow neat upon
The whitewash from her bony shine, the cobbles of the
Yard lit as pale as eggs.
The moon triggers his thoughts of Donegal and he remembers Ireland. These thoughts are triggered because on the last night he was in Ireland he saw the moon.
The whole point of Heaney coming to California is so that he can get away from the troubles of Ireland, but it seems that all he can think about is Ireland. Being so far from Ireland has made him realize what it means to him.
– From her bony shone…
He personifies the moon and gives it human characteristics. It is as thought the moon is of great importance to him, after all, it triggered his thoughts of Northern Ireland. He can even remember his shadow on the outside of the cottage.
– Summer had been a free fall ending there, the empty
Amphitheatre of the west.
Throughout summer, it had been a free fall, he had fun winding down. In a sense, the American theatre where he will be lecturing students, is like his life-it is new and unpredictable.
– Good Friday we had started out past shopblinds
Drawn on the afternoon, cars stilled outside still
Churches, bikes tilting to a wall
He recalls it being Good Friday the day he left. He recalls the atmosphere as people sat in church in silence in respect of Good Friday. The cars were parked outside the churches also still and silent, as though they are also paying their respect. Obviously, the shops were closed as well because it was a religious holiday.
– We drove by, a dwindling interruption, as clappers
Smacked on a bare altar and congregations bent to
The studded crucifix.
As their car drove by it made a slight noise, as they were the only ones not in church in silence. Clappers were used instead of bells to make a less of a noise, in order to respect the silence.
When the congregations bent, the feet of Christ were being kissed where the nails and his wounds are. As he is driving further away from Northern Ireland and its traditions, the burden is lifted from his shoulders. He begins to feel free.
– Roads unreeled, unreeled falling light as casts laid down
On shining waters.
He uses repetition to show how long the roads are. The roads are unwinding before, as are his troubles. As he drives down one road, he leaves another behind, just as he is doing with his troubles.
He contrasts the unreeled casts with fishing. Jesus’ decipals were fishermen.
– Under the moon’s stigmata six thousand miles
Away, I imagine untroubled dust, a loosening
Gravity, Christ weighing by his hands.
Once again, he talks about the moon. No matter where he goes, there is always the moon-the same moon. He can imagine all of Ireland’s troubles not being there anymore. Gravity is loose and no longer pulling Christ down on the cross. He imagines religion is back to how it should be.
For Heaney the moon is the symbol for mother Ireland.
Even though he cannot but help think of Ireland, he feels the need to get away from it and its troubles. He feels uncertain of his own homeland. He is not certain whether he feels at home there anymore and whether he is safer there.
Once again, he is uncertain of religion. It is as thought the moon has replaced Christ.
– ..the moon’s stigmata
He contrasts the moon with Christ. He is feeling far from religion and Northern Ireland. The only time, for him, that Northern Ireland will be peaceful, is when he imagines it in his mind. What will it take for religion to be followed and practiced properly?
Heaney uses religious language to contrast his feelings of Christ with the moon. This creates certain imagery in our minds. We picture, the moon’s stigmata-wounds.
He also uses Irish language. He talks about Irish humour and the cottages and the moon.
Once again, Heaney uses poetic techniques such as personification, metaphors, similes, onomatopoeia, alliteration. These techniques, once again, create imagery in our minds. They create a clearer picture for us as well as emphasize on his uncertainty.
– From her bony shine (Personification)
The structure of “Westering” is similar to that of “The Tollund Man”. Each stanza has four lines each and the shape of the poem is tall and mainly thin. However, halfway through it broadens slightly before going thin again, like the crucifix does.
Like “The Tollund Man”, Heaney replaces Christ. He looks towards other forms of inspiration to help him get through the troubled times.
He is uncertain of religion and home, once again. The only way he can do is run away, but wherever he runs he cannot help but think of Northern Ireland. He cannot get away from it.