Heaney dates this poem to the period immediately following the IRA cease-fire of August 1994 that gave rise to cautious hope. The poet and his wife are in Jutland, Denmark, at the iconic spot where the first of a series of ‘bog bodies’ was excavated in 1950. (The Tollund Man first appeared in Wintering Out, Heaney’s third collection of 1972 and will feature again in District and Circle of 2006.)
In one sense just a normal Sunday morning yet special: we had travelled far (both on the day and during the two decades since the first visit). They are engrossed: We stood a long time out in Tollund Moss. What was familiar in the landscape (The low ground, the swart water, the thick grass) contended with a sense of unreality: Hallucinatory.
Heaney picks out details: A path through Jutland fields; a faint ambient noise (Light traffic sound); the intermix of Man’s presence In a swept and gated farmyard and Jutland’s waterlogged landscape (dormant quags). Evidence too of interdependence of man and Nature: silage under wraps in its silent mound.
Close correspondences suggest a kindred Irish landscape a still out of the bright / ‘Townland of Peace’, a poem of dream farms, a fantasy beyond dispute: Outside all contention.
The age-old embraced the ultra-modern: the scarecrow’s arms / Stood open opposite the satellite/ Dish in the paddock, a pre-historic menhir has been resited (a standing stone / … resituated and landscaped) and rebranded to match less tasteful signs of tourism: futhark runic script/ In Danish and in English. Heaney notes the changes that he will link with ‘home’: Things had moved on.
The Danish scene could easily be Mulhollandstown or Scribe, its thoroughfares well directed (byroads … their names on them in black/ And white), its remoteness and sparse population reminiscent of Ireland (a user-friendly outback) above all, at this moment, a comforting release from restriction and sectarianism: we stood footloose, at home beyond the tribe.
Heaney and his wife feel like trailblazers (More scouts than strangers) emerging from dark times and cautiously optimistic (ghosts who’d walked abroad / Unfazed by light), buoyed by political developments that hold out hope of a new beginning, prepared to make a go of it, normal Irish ‘christian’ folk (alive and sinning) sensing the return of repressed freedoms (Ourselves again, free-willed again) and emphatically innocent of any guilty act: not bad.
- Tollund Moss: Heaney and his wife are in Denmark at the spot near Silkeborg in east Jutland where the first bog bodies were retrieved by P.V.Glob. The so-called Tollund Man excavated in 1950 was first of a series of bog bodies including the Grauballe Man of 1952; moss is the name for a peat bog in Northern Ireland;
- swart water: swart from OE and Gemanic is an indicator of colour – the black or darkest brown of peat-bog water;
- still life photography is the depiction of inanimate subject matter, most typically a small grouping of objects or a landscape;
- rushes: slender but durable marshland plant;
- bog-fir: marshland tree;
- grags: trees at once craggy and solid;
- quags: possibly shortened form of quagmire; marshy or boggy place;
- John Hewitt’s Townland of Peace published in the Bell in 1944 and beginning ‘Once walking in the county of my kindred’ celebrates the notion of walking in the Irish countryside with one’s ancestors;
- Beyond contention: without any shadow of disagreement;
- scarecrow: dummy human figure, set up to scare birds away from fields;
- satellite/ dish: bowl-shaped aerial permitting global communications via geo-stationary satellites;
- paddock: small enclosure for horses;
- standing stone: an upright menhir like many erected in prehistoric times in western Europe;
- futhark runic script: the Runic alphabet is also known as Futhark, a name composed from its first six letters namely f, u, th, a, r, and k; runes were the ‘letters’ of this ancient Germanic alphabet;
- Mullhollandstown … Scribe: townlands in the vicinity of Heaney’s childhood home;
- byroads: minor thoroughfares;
- user-friendly: easy to follow or understand;
- outback: referring to remote and sparsely inhabited areas;
- footloose: able to travel freely and do as one pleases, freed from responsibility or other commitment;
- tribe: groups with common ties and cultures;
- scouts: information gatherers sent out in advance;
- abroad: used to denote both away in a foreign country and enjoying freedom of movement;
- unfazed: neither disconcerted nor perturbed;
- make a go: be successful;
- sinning: committing a regrettable act;
- ourselves again: ‘I liked the complicating echo of the words ‘Sinn Fein’ in the phrase ‘ourselves again’ (see note below);
- free-willed: acting at one’s own discretion;
- ‘Released back into light, freed into autonomy, sinners but without the strain of civil strife, tey can once again be domestic and private’ (HVp 156);
- Heaney explained the circumstances of the visit in conversation with DOD (p350): ‘The coincidence was extraordinary. The IRA announced the cease- fire on a Wednesday, the last Wednesday in August, if I’m not mistaken, and I was asked to write about it for the next weekend’s Sunday Tribune. That same weekend I was also bound for Denmark, to do a reading in Copenhagen University, and inevitably I was remembering the visit I’d made to Jutland twenty-one years earlier, to see the Tollund Man. What happened, at any rate, was an unexpected trip to the actual bog in Tollund where the body had been found in the 1950s. My host in the English Department, Nick Rosenmeir, took this sudden notion on the Saturday afternoon, bundled his, wife and Marie and myself into his car, crossed to Jutland that evening on a ferry, put us up that night at their holiday house near Silkeborg and on the Sunday morning brought us to the actual spot where the turf cutters had dug him out.
‘Hallucinatory and familiar’, you called it. That’s exactly how it felt – as familiar as Toner’s Bog in the town lands of Mulhollandstown and Scribe, all named in the poem. It was like a world restored, the world of the second chance … Of our Sunday morning in Tollund, I felt a similar lightening of mood and open in of possibility. … What we were experiencing, you could say, was hope rather than optimism, and that’s why I liked the complicating echo of the words ‘Sinn Fein’ in the phrase ‘ourselves again’.
- “The end of art is peace” had been the motto which Heaney gave to a harvest bow in Field Work (1979). “Tollund” worries about whether peace might not be “the end of art”. Heaney makes a pilgrimage to the Jutland fields immortalized in his “bog poems”. In what he once called the “old man-killing parishes” (“Tollund Man” in Wintering Out, 1972), he now sardonically finds “user-friendly outback”, a scene that could have been “a still out of the bright / ‘Townland of Peace’, that poem of dream farms / Outside all contention”. In a world of awkward symmetries (a scarecrow stands opposite a satellite dish, tourist signs are in “futhark runic script / In Danish and in English”), the poem confronts the ragged, seemingly unpoetic realities of a technologized, disenchanted democracy. The poet embraces it willingly, if a little sceptically, as he faces the prospect of being ready to “make a new beginning / And make a go of it”. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996
- 6 quartets in 11 sentences; short ones follow the shifts of the observer’s gaze; the final 7-line sentence records reasons for optimism;
- line length based on 10 syllables;
- rhyme scheme abba cddc maintained throughout;
- use of dialectal vocabulary to increase Irishness (‘moss’ ‘swart’); rhyming neologisms (’grags’, ‘quags’);
- ‘under wraps’, play on words: wrapped up, veiled in secrecy;
- paradox ’outback’ normally associated with the Australian wilderness but user-friendly
- good husbandry in Jutland: ‘swept and gated’;
- opposites: ‘dream’/ ‘outside contention’; scarecrow/ satellite dish;
- Danish identity: futhark/ Runic/ Danish;
- irony: ‘Things had moved on’;
- the final 3 lines expressing hope build to the emphatic ‘not bad’;
- the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first quartet, for example stirs together sibilant sound [s] and alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside alveolar [l] bilabial [w] and nasals [m] [n];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.