Critically examine the following poem by Seamus Heaney: The Tollund Man (P.U. 2004)

Irish Myth

Heaney’s fascination with the people of the bog commenced with the publication of a book, The Bog People, by P.V. Glob, who describes the significance of the people buried under the peat. The English translation of his book appeared in 1969, the year the killings began. The book explained that the bodies of men and women recovered from the peat, buried since the Iron Age times, were sacrifices to the Goddess Nerthus. The belief was that she needed new bridegrooms each winter, to ensure fertility of the crops next spring. Heaney analogised the ritual sacrifices of yesteryear to the sacrifices of the lives of the Irishmen, in order to save the lives of their fellowmen.

Analogy to Present Conflict
The Tollund Man presents a complex statement of the renewal of communal violence in Ulster. Heaney compares the modern-day killings to the “old man-killing parishes” in Jutland, placing the conflict in a timeless context, and trying to make sense of it. Heaney deifies him, calling upon him to nullify the evil stirring in the “cauldron bog” and sow the seeds of peace for the citizens of Ireland to reap.
Rather than playing down the unfamiliar myths surrounding the bog people, Heaney uses folk rituals in an attempt to take the people of Ireland back to their roots. He resurfaces old customs in his belief that only by rediscovering their cultural heritage could the Irish people hope to find a way out of the impasse.
Return to Religion
Heaney regarded the Tollund Man as a deity, one to whom he looked with awe and reverence. As a victim of a religion and belief much older than Christianity, Heaney found in him the icon needed to replace the inadequate symbol of Christ crucified. The image of this ‘martyr’ stirred up memories of the past, atrocities, struggles, adversities of the Irish people.
Heaney had found the perfect metaphor he was looking for to understand the crisis. This realisation struck Heaney with a deep sense of religious intensity, and he vowed to visit Aarhus, the ‘temple’ of the Tollund Man.
When I wrote this poem, I had a completely new sensation, one of fear. It was a vow to go on pilgrimage and I felt as it came to me—and again it came quickly—that unless I was deeply in earnest about what I was saying, I was simply invoking dangers for myself. It is called The Tollund Man.
Description of the Tollund Man
He describes the man with fanatical obsession, down to every detail—his head, eye-lids shaped like pods and his cap. Heaney makes a reference to the legend of his dying in the winter, “last gruel of winter seeds”.
He uses sexual imagery, “bridegroom to the goddess”, referring to the sacrifice for Nerthus. “Opened her fen”, “dark juices”, “tightened her tore”—all these signify a strange sort of sexual union, arisen entirely in Heaney’s imagination.
Continuing the analogy of the sacrificial victim, the Tollund Man is compared to a saint, whose body is incorrupt. The preserved peat mean may be likened to a saint and prayed to, hoping he will make the dead “germinate” again, as his killers hoped he would.
Peat Man’s Power Over Heaney
The opening of the second section, “I could not risk blasphemy”, demonstrates the man’s power over Heaney, sending him almost into a trance with religious fervour. This line erupts over the poem, just like the “scattered”, “stockinged corpses”.
The third section foretells Heaney’s feelings when he goes to Jutland. He shares a sympathetic relationship with the Tollund Man, as he drives through the countryside he envisages the man’s last drive, of “sad freedom”, as he rides to his death.
This empathetic feelings creates a dream-like quality in the paradoxical lines of the poem:
Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.
Analogy and Allegory
This analogy rests on the word “home”, imbuing it with sadness and tragedy, emotions that are understandably linked to Heaney’s own homeland. The lines invoke a more desolate feeling with the use of the blunt archaic word “man-killing”. Its very peculiarity and unconventionalism strikes the reader, driving the point home.
Part of the alienating effect achieved is from Heaney’s imagining himself uttering some strange words in another “tongue”. Not knowing the language of a place is the deepest sort of estrangement, which is what the poet brings out. His sense of divided culture is derived from the fact that he writes in English, the “tongue” of the enemy, and not Irish, his mother tongue, which is identifiable with his native culture.
By emphasising the relationship between the poet and Tollund Man, Heaney takes off from the more complex themes of ‘Wintering Out’, dissolving the mystical ingredients into a melting pot of raw, immediate emotions — the pain of helplessness, incomprehension and isolation, “unhappy and at home”.
(ii) A Constable Calls
This poem is from ‘Singing School’. The poet describes an event when a constable comes to visit his father, to record information about his farm.
The poem opens with a detailed description by the young Heaney of the constable’s bicycle. He describes it in detail as it leans against the window-sill. He records all its components—the mudguard, the handlebars, dynamo and pedals. His camera-eye pans the floor inside, and notices the policeman’s cap lying there. The cap had formed a line against the constable’s forehead, which could be seen as he had taken it off, and sat there sweating.
As the young poet watches the constable interrogate his father about the crops, fear gripping him. His eyes were drawn to the revolver in the constable’s holster, gleaming in the sun, as he insistently questioned the poet’s father, ensuring all crops were accounted for.
The poet felt a twinge of guilt, remembering a patch in the potato field that his father didn’t mention. His juvenile mind leapt to the possibility of seeing his father in jail. His guilt and fear makes him refer to the policeman’s ledger as “the domesday book”, and as he waves and leaves, the boy looks after him, scared. All he can hear now is the ticking of the bicycle.
In many of his poems, Heaney attempts simply to write about the effect of the violence in Ulster on himself, both as a citizen of Ireland and as a poet. Expected as he is to proffer solutions to the conflict, give messages to the public, or perhaps simply report the happenings as a journalist, he ignores such expectations, and writes as he feels he ought to.
A Child’s Viewpoint
A Constable Calls is a poem describing Heaney’s experience of a policeman’s visit to his home. He could have used this visit as a means of offering a general insight into the “siege mentality” of the Catholic population as a whole, or the role of the police in the current crisis, and what they were or were not doing to control it.
Instead he writes about the event from a child’s point of view, a child’s fear of “the boot of the law”, his sense of discomfort and inadequacy. He could have easily written it with the hindsight of adulthood, or through the eyes of his father, but he chose instead to turn it into a study of childhood guilt and insular behaviour, rather than a political statement. This poem thus leaves the reader wondering about what might have been said, rather than what was said.

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