‘What the Californian distance did was to lead me back into the Irish memory bank’ (DOD142).
Ulster dialect and pronunciation are woven into the first piece (‘Fodder’) as a shared inheritance of Irish people whatever their religious denomination. The image of a recycled Bog Oak, preserved by the peat bogs that surrounded Heaney’s childhood home, is presented as further ‘common ground’; the poet adds Irish identity, climate and history to the mix.
The peat bogs, ‘sacred places’ (MP94) for Heaney, stored and preserved what was deposited in them also acting, layer by layer, as a historical archive.
Heaney acknowledges the aged Bog Oak as a usable wood retrieved from the peat and source of recycling income. Sight of it transports his poetic imagination back in time. He pictures it carried back, finders-keepers, in triumph, (A carter’s trophy) to be prepared as a building material (Split for rafters). He feels and sees the patterning and coloration (cobwebbed, black) of the beam in its pivotal place (under the first thatch) and assesses the skeletal strength it brings to the construction: long-seasoned rib.
Heaney’s emotions tempt him to stay longer (I might tarry) at the point in history where he has landed: amongst stereotypical Irish antecedents (the moustached / dead) and the trades they practised (the creel-fillers). Were he able to listen in (eavesdrop) he would surely hear the litany of trials and tribulations the Irish faced (then as now?): their subjugated intelligence (hopeless wisdom); the discomforts of poverty as a blow-down of smoke / struggles over the half-door; the wretched climate (mizzling rain / blurs the far end / of the cart track), the trail of softening ruts that leads back to a pre-Christian time before ‘oak groves’ with its Celtic cutters of mistletoe in the green clearings.
Blurred images resolve to reveal a notorious figure from the 16th century (he of the Munster Plantations and Desmond rebellions period), a time when Irish property was confiscated and passed to anglo-scottish colonists: Perhaps I just make out / Edmund Spenser, looking through rose-tinted spectacles (dreaming sunlight), blinded to the moving plight of the starving Irish peasantry (and Heaney quotes directly from Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland) (encroached upon by/ geniuses who creep / ‘out of every corner/ of the woodes and glennes ‘) reduced, despite its instinct to stay alive, to the paltriest and most primitive forms of sustenance: watercress and carrion.
- bog oak: not a species, rather oak that has been buried in a peat bog for hundreds or sometimes thousands of years, retrieved and used as a building material;
- carter: driver of a strong, traditional load-carrying open vehicle drawn by a horse;
- rafters: cross beams supporting the roof framework of necessity strong lengths of wood;
- seasoned: left to lie until its moisture content balances with the environment;
- thatch: traditional reed/straw roofing material;
- creel: a traditional basket made of woven twigs, used often to carry fish;
- eavesdrop: originally ‘listen unseen from under the eaves’; to listen furtively to what is happening;
- blow-down: fire-smoke entering old chimneys and holes in the ceiling repelled by the wind;
- half-door: doors divided horizontally; features of farm buildings containing livestock;
- mizzling: adjective from portmanteau word describing fine mist and drizzle; of Celtic origin;
- ruts: tracks across farmland left by the repeated passage of (cart)wheels; used metaphorically to denote an inescapable reality from which no escape is possible;
- groves: small woods;
- mistletoe: a parasitic plant growing from trees, venerated by druids of ancient Celtic religions;
- Edmund Spenser: see notes below;
- encroach: the Old French encrocher (literally ‘to catch with a hook’) adds to the parasitic impact of mistletoe as ‘fastening onto’, ’hanging onto’ and, by extension ‘seizing wrongfully”
- genius: (from late 14c Old English) : a spirit that guides and governs an individual through life, from Latin genius “guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth;
- woodes: the Old English spelling of ‘woods’;
- glenne: the Old English spelling; glen: Gaelic/ Irish reference to ‘narrow valley’;
- watercress: a plant found near springs and slow-moving streams ideally suited to damp Irish conditions and cultivated throughout Europe, Central Asia, and the Americas for millennia for use as both a food and a medicine;
- carrion: the flesh of dead animals used for human consumption in early times;
- ‘The collection proper begins with ‘Fodder’, the first of many hymns to sacred places, objects and words which continue to quicken and nourish the poet’s imagination, at a time when human life seems no longer sacred … Aware that the age of miracles and innocence has passed, Heaney summons its memory to sustain him during the cold, bleak present’ (MP94);
- Heaney discovered ‘common ground’ in 1969 in an archaeological study of Iron Age Jutland, P. V. Glob’s The Bog People; the recovery of human bodies preserved in peat since the Iron Age (of at least one thousand years BC) would find counterparts in Ireland. The theme is developed later in ‘The Tollund Man’ of this collection and will recur in Heaney’s oeuvre;
- Thomas Flanagan who was a great friend to Heaney during his sabbatical year at Berkeley re-tuned the poet’s thinking, hitherto based very much on his English degree studies, to include a greater awareness of Irish affairs. Flanagan’s book The Irish Novelists 1800-1850 (Columbia UP 1959) quotes (p.8) from Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland(of 1598), with reference to the Desmond Rebellion: ‘Out of every corner of the woodes and glennes they came crepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked like Anatomies of death, they spake like ghostes crying out of theire graves; they did eat of the dead Carrions, happy were they could find them yea, and one another soon after in so much as the very Carcases they spared not to scrape out of theire graves. And yf they founde a plot of watercresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as a feast for the tyme yet not long able to continue therewithall that in short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left voyde of man or beaste.’
- ‘Heaney’s poem registers a sympathy for these historically dispossessed and maltreated, and for their successors, ‘the moustached / dead, the ‘creel fillers’. As a poet writing in the English language, Heaney is inevitably part of the poetic tradition which contains The Faerie Queene; but ‘Bog Oak’ suggests how tangentially and suspiciously related to it he is when it reminds us that such literary perfections as that great Renaissance poem – written by Spenser’ dreaming sunlight’ in Kilcolman Castle, his planter’s estate in Co. Cork – were the flower of a culture whose roots lay in the brutal political realities described in the State of-Ireland’ (NC31-2);
- ‘the concept of ‘home’ now required a wider definition, and involved more than the close family characters depicted in his first volumes . In ‘Bog Oak’, he shoulders metaphorically a beam of timber … a symbol of strength and endurance … (coming face-to-face) with an English poet and colonial civil servant, Edmund Spenser … composing at Kilcolman Castle in Co Cork, one of many lucrative estates he had ‘acquired’ in Ireland for services to the Crown . The concluding lines of ‘Bog Oak’ remind us that while Spenser created, the people he had helped to subjugate starved … that (to Spender’s mind) the extremity of the famine was something ‘they themselves wrought’. For Heaney, however, there is no ambiguity of response towards them … it is (Irish) land and their liberty which is again being ‘encroached upon’ (MP95);
- 7 quatrains of 4/5 syllables; 4 sentence construction; no formal rhyme scheme; some loose coincidence of dominant vowel sound in final word;
- copious use of enjambment and relative absence of punctuation marks provides a smooth legato flow;
- a tree used as an icon of belonging and catalyst to reawaken memory;
- present tense;
- use of modal ‘might’ expresses opportunity;
- vocabulary of tree-age alongside references to Irish first nations;
- use of ‘I’: the poet is present but almost intruding;
- image of stereotypical Irish perceived backwardness; use of insubstantial spirits and landscape: ‘creel-fillers’, ‘smoke’, ‘mizzling’, blurs’;
- reference to pagan icons: ‘mistletoe’;
- dream sequence confronts fact and fiction; use of historical figure, fellow poet but occupier with little sympathy for the occupied; quotation from original Spenser;
Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
- the music of the poem: nine 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 five lines of for example, brings together a cluster of alveolar plosives: alveolar[t] bilabial [b] and velar [k] alongside softer alveolar sibilants [s] [z];
- 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.