Prompted by the story of a baby’s body dredged up by fishermen Heaney traces a path through the emotional, maternal, religious and spiritual ramifications of infanticide from within the confused mother’s experience.
‘The poem may be read as a parable for an Ireland in which ‘tribal taboos and laws can so easily outweigh ‘civilized’ humane values’ (MP114-5). Heaney suggests, without passing judgment on her himself that rather than suffer the ostracism faced by unmarried mothers in the so-called ‘christian’ communities in which she lived, the mother has tried unsuccessfully to cleanse herself of sin by drowning her new-born..
A gruesome discovery, splashed as a news headline, Fishermen at Ballyshannon/ Netted an infant last night generates in the poet an image of epiphany: a child’s body lying, fishlike, amongst the salmon haul, a fish out of water, conceived out of wedlock (An illegitimate spawning) and discarded as an unwanted fish: A small one thrown back/ To the waters.
Heaney avoids joining the predictable chorus of outrage, persuaded (But I’m sure) that what happened should not be written off automatically as a monster’s cold, heartless murder of her new-born child.
To counter Catholic doctrine whereby unbaptized children, prevented from entering heaven, lived on in eternal limbo Heaney presents the act of infanticide as a scene of baptism: the mother motionless in the shallows; her child immersed compassionately beneath the sea’s surface Ducking him tenderly; water-chill numbing her body: Till the frozen knobs of her wrists / Were dead as the gravel; her consciousness still stinging with the pain of childbirth (He was a minnow with hooks/Tearing her open).
Irrationally she sees what she is doing as an act of love releasing her child from future social rejection as a bastard. Her distorted act of blessing, a mock baptism (She waded in under/ The sign of her cross), is exposed by the light of day He was hauled in with the fish.
Intolerance and a mother’s subsequent despair have sentenced the child to limbo. He will not be alone (A cold glitter of souls) in its vast expanse (some far briny zone).
Without intending sacrilege, perhaps, Heaney suggests that Christ, himself a crucified victim and a lover of children, might shy away from the issue of baptism and redemptive intervention: salt water is too painful for the open wounds Jesus sustained on the Cross – Christ’s palms, unhealed, / Smart and cannot fish there.
Heaney is questioning aspects of Catholic doctrine: the mother’s failure to baptize the child formally has condemned it to eternal limbo; Heaney suggests that Christ would place himself in an impossible situation were he to intervene contrary to dogma taught in his name.
- Jesus’ compassion for little children is reported in the Holy Bible by the Gospels (for example Luke 18:15-17 reports as follows: 15 And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. 17 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein).
- limbo: (Latin ‘limbus’ edge, boundary) place to which, supposedly, the souls of unbaptized children (too young to have committed sin but not freed from Original Sin) went after death, in this case infanticide at the hands of the child’s mother;
- netted: caught in a fishing net;
- illegitimate: born to unmarried parents; also unauthorised, forbidden, against the rules;
- spawning: ‘spawn’ refers to fish eggs released into water; used figuratively and insultingly to with reference to offspring;
- thrown back: fishermen would return small or damaged fish to the sea as having no sale-value;
- shallows: where the water is not deep;
- ducking: immersing, pushing underwater;
- knobs: rounded lumps;
- minnow: tiddlers, small fish (generally freshwater);
- soul: spiritual, intangible part of the human body; by synecdoche ‘person’;
- sign of the cross (Latin:signum crucis), is a ritual blessing made by members of many branches of Christianity. This blessing is made by the tracing a cross across the body with the right hand;.
- Christ’s palms: allusion to the stigmata, marks left by the nails that attached the crucified Jesus to the cross;
- smart: sting, burn;
- 5 quartets in 7 sentences; line length 5-8 syllables; unrhymed;
- the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
- simple past tense of reported story; present tense of reflection on the report;
- ‘illegitimate spawning’: clever juxtaposition that subsumes the fish parallel (‘salmon’), the notion of a bastard child frowned upon in narrow Irish Catholic communities, the body committed to the waves;
- metonymy ‘waters’ for sea;
- vocabulary denoting tiny size: ‘infant … small one … minnow’;
- euphemistic ‘ducking’ deliberately non-violent;
- feelings of the mother evoke sympathy: ’tenderly … tearing her open’ (physical act of childbirth and, ironically, her maternal feelings at the very moment she is killing her child);
- numbness/ death extended from her body to the child: ‘frozen knobs … dead’; simile: wrists as lacking in feeling as inanimate gravel;
- paradoxical Christian notion of blessedness; note ‘her’ cross’, certainly different from the norm;
- the child’s eternal wandering will take place, no outside some underworld Hell but rather in this marine environment: ‘limbo … cold glitter of souls … far briny zone’;
- implicit criticism of Catholic doctrine (Jesus Christ, both ‘fisher of men’ and a victim, cannot receive an unbaptized infant into his care) delivered through the metaphor of raw wounds and salty sea;
- 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: eleven 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 lines, for example, brings together labio-dental fricative [f] a cluster of alveolar sounds (plosive[t], approximant [l] and nasal [n]) alongside gentle sibilants [s] [sh];
- 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.
- ‘According to a medieval Catholic doctrine, once powerful but now discarded, the souls of unbaptized children could not enter heaven but were thought to be consigned to a place called Limbo – from the Latin limbus, ‘border’ – where they were denied the beatific vision … By turning his gaze from the abundances and confirming rituals of family life to a dark and cruel underside of the culture he was bred in, and by directing his gaze away from artisanry and agriculture to illegitimacy and intimidated women, Heaney admitted – in a characteristic enquiry into facets of his culture that were taken for granted – long standing anonymities that were other than benevolent’(HV32-3);
- ‘Wintering ‘Out (1972), takes up anonymity with a different and new sharpness, exposing the raw underside of rural ‘decency’, and investigating the plight of women in a sexually repressive culture. In ‘Limbo’ a newborn baby, never christened and therefore never given a name, is drowned by its shamed mother and dragged up by fishermen… For such poems, which silently reprove the pieties condemning sexuality outside marriage, Heaney abandoned the broad and placid pentameter that had served him well for poems about churning and thatching and dowsing, turning instead to lines that are short, sharp, taciturn and, for all their pity, ‘cold’ and ‘lunar’ (ibid);
- ‘in I969 and 1970, I’d written the group of poems about women in distress (including) ‘Limbo’ … those narratives and monologues formed one segment of the contents’ (DOD124);
- ‘In line six … a second voice ( ) probes the tragic sub-text of the story … Heaney makes it clear that the woman is no heartless monster, but rather a frightened and confused human being. Having endured the fear and loneliness of her secret pregnancy and the harrowing ordeal of childbirth (‘Tearing her open ‘) she agonises over a deed which will bring not the temporary ‘relief’ she imagines, but rather an eternity of guilt … One must assume that the forgiveness that Christ showed to the woman taken in adultery has no place in Ballyshannon’ (MP113);
- ‘Perhaps the most usual way poets devise to be anonymous is to turn to myth and legend (whether classical, Christian or folk-derived), and Heaney takes this path as well. In a rather self-conscious early poem called ‘Undine’ … the poem announces Heaney’s interest in assuming (as in ‘The Wife’s Tale’, ‘Mother’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Shore Woman’ and elsewhere) a special type of anonymity: what it might mean to imagine oneself inside a woman’s experience’ (HV22-3);
- ‘As regards Heaney’s attitude to religion at this stage in his career: if Christianity did not possess either relevance or moral force why would it appear (Christ’s palms) in such major poems as ‘Limbo? ‘Clearly Catholicism permeates his poetic consciousness, with its weighty emphasis on ritual supplication, on awe, grace, guilt, humility, responsibility, discipline, and its burdened and burdening vocabulary’ (MP114-5);
- ‘The suffering and endurance of the imagined or recalled figures of ‘Wintering Out’ are complemented by the volume’s two references to Christ: at the end of ‘Limbo’, ‘where he is a figure of the most intense exclusion and ineffectualness (‘Even Christ’s palms, unhealed, I Smart and cannot fish there’)’, and in ‘the surreal image of the final line of ‘Westering’ – and therefore of the whole book – where, in a figure of lonely unconnectedness which perhaps draws on Salvador Dalì, the poem locates ‘Christ weighing by his hands’ in the moon’s gravity.’ (NC40);