Comparative Close Reading
I will do a comparative close reading of ‘The Tollund Man’ by Seamus Heaney and ‘Welsh Landscape’ by R.S. Thomas. There are interesting points of similarity and difference between the poems. Both deal with problematic constructions of contemporary personal and national identity in relation to narratives of the past. Heaney offers a mythopoeic appropriation of the layers of history unearthed by the discovery of incredibly preserved ‘bog people’ in Denmark. Thomas focuses on the Welsh landscape in the context of modernity, progress, loss and identity. Neither offers definite conclusions, but through contrasting styles and uses of language, both engage with the paradoxes and complex negotiations in fashioning the self in relation to discourses of myth, history and nation.
‘The Tollund Man’ is taken from Heaney’s 1972 collection Wintering Out. This locates it in a ‘post-68’ context both in the sense of coming in the wake of the broad 1968 context of protests and revolution, and also in the wake of the beginning of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, which emerged in the late 1960s around events such as the forming of the UVF in 1966 and attacks on civil rights marches in 1968. While the poem doesn’t engage directly with the specifics of this political context, it bears traces of histories of violence and the negotiation of identity in this context.
The “I” of the poem is initially distant and adopts a reflective tone, “some day I will go to Aarhus”, in its descriptions of the excavated corpse of the 4th Century ‘bog person’ discovered in the 1950s in Denmark. Characteristic of Heaney’s work, historical facts such as the reference to the “gruel of winter seeds” found in his stomach, intermingle with descriptions of imagined fragments of history and the future. The description of the corpse uses monosyllabic physical language, “mild pods of his eye-lids / His pointed skin cap” to evoke the corporeal materiality of the body. The language used here also highlights the fragility of the body, “lids…skin”, to emphasise by contrast the violence alluded to later. As in some of Heaney’s other poems such as ‘Bog Queen’, the land is personified as a feminine force, “she tightened her torc on him”, which is eroticized, “those dark juices / working him” as well as represented as ‘giving birth’ to the corpse. The ‘torc’ is an image of both female adornment (the necklace) and of violence (the noose). Critics such as Culingford have picked up on this gendering of the land to suggest that its use of the monstrous erotic to represent of the feminine is clichéd, “[it] literalizes the familiar topos of the land as a woman’s body producing a corpse” (Culingford 1996, cited in lecture notes). On the other hand, it could be seen as a more ambivalent image, read in relation to Heaney’s constant questioning and troubling of gendering and conflict in other works such as ‘Act of Union’, which is self-critical of metaphors used in colonial literature personifying the land as a woman to be conquered by male colonial powers. Indeed, the personification is complicated in the next section when the language used by Heaney to symbolize connection with the Earth, “consecration…blasphemy” suggests trouble and guilt.
Physical descriptions of the corpse soon mix into an imagining of both the poet’s future visit to the site, and the mythic past evoked by the discovery. Such mixing of times and tenses, evident in the shift from future to past, marked by just a comma between the third and fourth stanzas of the first section, is also common in Heaney’s work, and suggests the constant negotiation of past, present and future vital to constructions of nation, self and identity. His stuttering fragmentary style and use of harsh Anglo-Saxon vocabulary such as ‘torc’, ‘fen’ or ‘tumbril’ suggests the use of language to dig up a past, but also suggests the difficulty of such digging, as well as the less than coherent dense material that may emerge. Specific uses of language also multiply meanings: ‘tumbril’ for example, recalls not only an agricultural cart, but also the carts used to offload bodies after the French Revolution. Digging into language, it is always double, layered and multiple.
After, in the second section, proposing a ritualistic connection between the Tollund Man and the corpses of others violently killed, the final section makes a direct contrast between the poet in the present and the corpse, as if the ritualistic ‘praying’ suggested in the previous section has created a connection across history between them:
Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names
In this section, Heaney deals with language, translation and alienation. The repetition of the harsh guttural names of medieval Anglo-Saxon villages referencing the sites of discovery of other ‘bog people’ “Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard” emphasizes their foreignness to 20th century ears, as well as dwelling on their seductive poeticism, alluding to a lost oral tradition, “saying the names”. To see the names written along one line almost demands that they are spoken out loud, contrasting the poet’s paradoxical supposed mastery of language with his simultaneous inability to speak. Isolated and distant, lack of knowledge suggests alienation, watching yet not understanding, “not knowing their tongue”.
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.
The paradoxes of identification, land and identity are brought sharply into focus at the end of the poem. The figure is removed from his ‘home’ context, “out there” yet retains a sense of familiarity expressed through the colloquial “old man-killing parishes”. This familiarity serves to initially mask the violence of the image, but then produces a powerful sense of shock, as if one suddenly realises the actual violence of a context they take for granted as ‘home’ every day. Obvious parallels can be made here between the historical violence and the violence in Heaney’s own ‘parish’ in 1970s Northern Ireland. The paradox of feeling simultaneously comfortable, “at home” and repulsed “lost / Unhappy” in this context is expressed in relation to the poet’s mixed feelings at the discovery of the Tollund man. While the image of excavating a corpse suggests a search, through layers of the past, for origins and authenticity, it produces a violent and complex reaction. Lost, unhappy and at home, the poet is split, the doubleness of his subjectivity emphasized as is much of Heaney’s other poems, the “double agent” in ‘England’s difficulty’ for example, or the figure “stood between them” who speaks in a voice that “began to make strange / at that same recitation” in ‘Making Strange’. Excavation of the past, rather than producing a stable sense of identity serves as a ‘making strange’ of the present, emphasizing the poet’s position split between the language he is drawn to but does not understand, and the language he uses but is steeped in histories of domination and violence.
This sense of ‘doubleness’ is also deeply evident in R.S. Thomas’ ‘Welsh Landscape’, which offers an interesting contrast with ‘The Tollund Man’. Fiona Sampson suggests that it is also a “poem of excavation” (Sampson 1996), but if this is so, then in contrast with the archaeological physicality of Heaney’s explorations of identity, Thomas’s archaeology is more into an anxious interiority, inspired by his reading of landscape. Against the tightly controlled, stuttering, guttural fragmentation of Heaney’s poem, Thomas’ poem adopts a more free-flowing style and lyrical tone. His use of sibilance, “the soft consonants / Strange to the ear” contrasts directly with Heaney’s abrasive use of hard consonant sounds. Thomas’ soft flowing use of language creates a more nostalgic tone which can be read in relation to his initial evocation of Welsh history as violent yet masked with beauty:
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
The landscape, described using romantic visionary imagery, “wild sky” and “immaculate rivers” is exposed as masking traces of violence “the spilled blood” of past conflict. It both offers up its beauty and hides its violent past. It is the poet, positioned as seer, who can be “conscious” and aware of these contradictions of history, beauty and romanticism. In the first few lines, the poet is positioned “aware” and “above” the noise below, in the Romantic position of outsider channelling vision into poetry.
However, it is not only the role of the poet to be conscious and aware, as is made clear in the first line, as well as later in the poem, “You cannot live in the present / At least not in Wales”. Memory, as consciousness of the violence upon which beauty is based, becomes the duty not only of the poet but of the Welsh people or nation as a whole. “Cannot” here emphasizes how it is duty rather than choice and gives the poem a moralistic edge or manifesto-like call to arms feel. Taking this image of the duty of memory further, it could be argued that it is situated in direct opposition to the lack of ‘consciousness’ of the negatively mechanically represented developments of modernity, “the noisy tractor / And hum of the machine”. In this sense, Thomas’ call to consciousness is not only a call to a historically rooted national identity but also a critique of the relentless forward pace, speed and amnesiac blind faith in ‘progress’ of modernity, “strife in the strung woods / Vibrant with sped arrows”.
He contrasts his evocation of modernity with what he feels it lacks, “Cries in the dark at night / As owls answer the moon / and thick ambush of shadows”. These images are interesting as they suggest not only beauty but also danger and the threat of violence. This ambivalence develops as Thomas goes on not to simply define alienating modernity against a romanticized and idealized vision of welsh ruralism, but to present an equally damning attack on Wales itself:
Brittle with relics
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts
Mouldering quarries and mines
And an impotent people
Sick with inbreeding
On one hand then the onrush of an alien sounding modernity, and on the other hand the decay and sickness of a barren and decaying culture fixated on pseudo-history, “sham ghosts” and incapable of producing anything new. “To be conscious”, for Thomas, becomes a weight of oppression, and an attempt to forge a sense of self from between these oppressive discourses.
The ‘impotence’ of Thomas’ representation of the Welsh people contrasts with the more ambivalent ritualistic fertility of the land in Heaney’s poem. In ‘The Tollund Man’, Heaney prays that the corpse may “germinate”. On one hand, the Earth is the fertile site of new life symbolized by “she opened her fen”. On the other hand, land only spews forth death, “the scattered, ambushed / Flesh of labourers”. While shadows lie in ambush in ‘Welsh Landscape’, creating a sense of indeterminate dread, the ambushes have already happened in Heaney, whose poems are more drenched in the imagery of actual violence. There is another interesting comparison in the poet’s treatment of time. While Heaney moves swiftly between past, present and future, Thomas is damning of past and future, condemned to a perpetual present. Unfortunately, however, “there is no present in Wales”. This suggests that Thomas, Welsh but not speaking the Welsh language until later in life, must forge identity outside of Wales, find a present elsewhere, although to do this, as in Heaney’s negotiations of English and Irish languages and identities, requires a loss and re-articulation of selfhood.
This split of identity is at the heart of both poems. While both emphasise ‘doubleness’ and loss in relation to history and landscape, their attitudes differ. Heaney uses the corpse as an active ritualistic production of a mythic past in order to attempt to come to terms with the violent political context around him. Thomas, on the other hand, advocates the duty of memory, yet finds no solace in idealizing the past, and is left, being “worried” with the anguish of poetic consciousness.
All references to the main poems are from the lecture notes and handouts.
References to all other Heaney poems are from:
Heaney, S. (1990) New Selected Poems 1966-1987 London: Faber
Culingford, E. B. (1996) ‘British Romans and Carthaginians: Anticolonial Metaphor in Heaney, Friel and McGuinness’, PMLA 111, 222-239
Sampson, F. (1996) ‘On Not Catching the Poacher: R.S. Thomas’ Thumbscrew, No.4 Spring 1996, http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=12607
Accessed 18th March 2009