Murderous, entrenched, complex – the Northern Ireland conflict seems to defy rational discourse. But from the contradictions and tensions has sprung some remarkable art, not least the poetry of the Troubles, now widely recognised as among the most vibrant contemporary writing in the English language.
Through the six poems mentioned the theme of death is very prominent. We start with “Tollund Man” and “Grauballe Man”. In these two poems Heaney portrays the deaths as a tragedy, but opposed to his other poems, he refers hear mainly to the physical appearance of the bodies.
In “Tollund Man” he starts the poem with a very vivid, striking description of the body, and expresses his desired pilgrimage. Heaney focus’ mainly on the period after death in this poem and describes how its miraculous preservation has made it seem to become one with the earth “she tightened her torc on him”. Heaney seems in awe of the ‘corpse’, which after death the body has taken on a Christ like appearance “I could risk blasphemy”. This death does not have any direct relation, as such, to Heaney, and therefore does not have the same sort of heartfelt mourning. None the less Heaney still seems to care greatly for this Bog body and elaborates on the condition in which the body was found. He uses these details to create himself his own story of their life leading up to their gruesome murder. In the last section of this poem Heaney refers to the “sad freedom” that comes with death, and how now he will be grouped as a statistic with Bog bodies found in the various other locations. The Tollund Man now has his freedom, but at a high price. Heaney finishes with a personal reference to his own sadness:
“I will feel lost, unhappy, and at home”
Here he is referring (as he does in a number of his poems) to the violence in Northern Ireland, to demonstrate how he has become accustomed to death.
Similarly in “Grauballe Man” Heaney describes the body as if it has become one with the earth. As with many poets Heaney agrees that there is a fine line between sleep and death. Here the Grauballe Man:
“Lies on a pillow of turf and seems to weep”
Heaney personifies the lifeless body, describing him as if asleep he continues this and lets the bodies take on other animal qualities “his spine an eel arrested” but he maintains its peaceful image. Again here he uses vivid imagery “the vent of his of his slashed throat that has tanned and toughened” to convey the way in which this almost angelic body lays. He does not want to refer to the body as a corpse and he asks the rhetorical question “Who will say ‘corpse’ to his vivid cast?” Similarly to the Tollund man given the body a more holy image than simply a rotting corpse. By the end of the poem Heaney has become familiar to the body and answers to himself his rhetorical question. Heaney draws up the conclusion that there is a fine line between beauty and atrocity. He uses blunt, monosyllabic word sounds such as slash[ed] and dump[ed] to represent the harsh reality of the world and what man has turned it into.
Being used to death is something that has influenced a lot of Heaney’s poems. This is an incredibly sad poem. The mood is set almost immediately in the second line: Counting bells knelling classes to a close. Notice how Heaney uses assonance and alliteration to emphasise the funereal sound of the bells and the feeling of time dragging. The stanza begins with the “morning” in line one but it is two o’clock in line three showing that hours have passed in waiting. The second stanza begins with the image of Heaney’s father “crying”. Having come across Heaney’s father in poems such as Follower in which he appears to be a strong man of few words, this contrary picture evokes powerful emotion in the reader. Heaney skilfully takes the reader with him as he enters the house through the porch – we meet his father, “Big Jim Evans”, the baby in its pram, the old men congregated in the room and finally Heaney’s mother coughing out “angry tearless sighs”.
Lines 14-15 again show Heaney using assonance, this time in his repetition of the short “a” – “At”, “ambulance”, “arrived”, “stanched”, “and”, “bandaged” – emphasising the stopping short of blood and life. We learn in the sixth stanza that Heaney hadn’t seen his brother for six weeks having been “Away at school”. The words “Paler now”, hang at the end of the stanza causing a sad pause before the sentence continues and describes how little changed in appearance the boy is in death, the difference being his paler complexion and “poppy bruise”. The final line stands out on its own. Almost every word is emphasised so that the reader must take in the line’s message and the shock and deep grief that the family must have felt. There is an element of shock for the reader reading it for the first time also, when they discover who has died and that he was a mere four years old.
Again in Funeral Rites it is a person close to Heaney who has died. In this poem Heaney describes him self as being very close to the deceased, playing the part of the pallbearer, he uses here a double entendre as he “shoulders a kind of manhood” as he is only a child. As in “The Tollund Man” and “The Grauballe Man” Heaney begins with a vivid description of the body with its “dough white hands” and “igloo brows”. Heaney uses phrases such as the black glacier of each funeral pushed away” to demonstrate how darkness is synonymous with death. In the second section of this poem, Heaney also concentrates on the period straight after death as in “Mid-Term Break”. However here he focuses on the funeral procession linking it again with the violence in Northern Ireland:
“Now as news comes in
of each neighbourly murder
we pine for ceremony,
Heaney shows he has become accustomed to death and how the formalities after death are simply for show. Heaney, once again, creates a solemn atmosphere in the second section describing the slow moving procession paying their ‘respect’. He personifies the funeral procession as it “drags its tail” morbidly through the streets and side roads of Ireland.
In the last section Heaney brings together the themes of his own childhood experience of death, deaths in the north at present and the death of Gunnar, a Viking hero “dead by violence and unavenged”. This demonstrates the futile waste of life conflict has caused over many centuries, and sending a powerful message to the reader.
In the poem “Limbo” Heaney touches on the controversial subject of Religion. Heaney casually introduces the subject of the poem, with a newspaper style headline:
“Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon”
He tags on the end of the first to line”-along with the salmon” making it sound as if it is nothing out of the ordinary. Following this he concentrates on the actual death of the bastard baby, murdered by his own mother for the sake of religious beliefs. Heaney describes how the baby was rejected by its mother and discarded, although not without feeling:
“He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.”
This shows how strong some peoples convictions really are, and how they are prepared to die, or to kill for them. He uses vivid imagery and descriptive language to try and out across the pain, emotion, and brutality of the situation. The mother has to choose her baby or her religion, and being a strict Christian chooses Catholicism and drowns her own child ironically in contrast with the teachings of the bible. He ands mentioning the place where the body of the child now lays, in “some far briny zone” where the water is too harsh “Even Christ’s palms, unhealed, Smart and cannot fish there.”
The last poem, Casualty, is more of a story than the others are. It describes an elderly man who is a local customer at a bar in Ireland. He is fond of a drink but is able to control him self and maintain dignity. He is content to sit at a bar and watch life go by him. Out of respect he attempts to speak of poetry, but is clearly not at ease with this, so Heaney changes the subject. Although he is “laconic” he has a great presence, but his confidence eventually leads to his downfall, and this is how Heaney builds up emotion in the reader. He presents a figure that he describes in great detail and becomes attached to. This man does not think he should have to obey a curfew and is killed out on the street. Heaney describes how graffiti on the wall compares lives to goals in a football match. Heaney demonstrates his emotion in the harsh situation, and provokes emotion in the reader by creating a very solemn mood.
In the second section Heaney moves on from this particular case to the general brutality in the Ireland conflict. He uses phrases such as “coffin after coffin” and “common funeral” to demonstrate how, tragically, death and violence have become an accepted part of life. Heaney then goes back to the solemn story of the man from the bar, who was simply carrying out his usual routine. He did not think he should be confined to his home for someone else’s evils. This shows how the killings were not discriminate and he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Heaney then goes on to say how he did not attend the funeral, but instead reminisces on his times spent with the man. Heaney seems to find falsehood in funerals, and would prefer to sit in isolation and think back to the time when he “tasted freedom with him”. Now the man is free and has no longer to face the arduous tasks of life, or the cruelty of man.
Throughout Heaney’s poems he expresses his distaste of mans cruelty towards their own species. Heaney expresses his views on the futility of violence with inspiring confidence. In each of his poems he manages to use many different literary devices and provokes thought and emotion in the reader. His language is poignant and yet not aggressive and at the same time he is presenting a very valid set of arguments.
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