“In what ways can a reading of a poem be enhanced by a knowledge of historical details not included in the text?

Refer to at least two poems in your response.” In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Seamus Heaney spoke of “having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of ongoing political violence and public expectation”. As someone who is both Irish and a poet, it seemed only right that Heaney would write scathing treatises behind the battlements of one of these “mutually disapproving groups” - that he would comment, politically and factionally, on the issues facing a divided Ireland. Heaney seemingly rejects this, instead seeing the Troubles as that which transcends the current political landscape and is archetypal of the human condition – who we are, what we are, and why we do the things we do. Heaney does not write as an Irish poet – Protestant or Catholic – but merely as a human being, with the context of living through the Troubles. Through the use of historical details, fleeting glances of the past and present, Heaney shows that the issues and messages presented in his poetry are universal truths. It can be said that the conclusion Heaney reaches it “if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten”; that until we (that is, the species as a whole) disallow ourselves to walk down the same wrong roads and repeat the same mistakes, we will leave the same legacy of pain, suffering and violence that our forebears did. Heaney's poems “The Tollund Man” and “Punishment” - the former from the Wintering Out collection and the latter from North - all go beyond the prima facie reading, linking Irish affairs with historical occurrences and thereby commenting on the human condition. The initial reading of “The Tollund Man” is of the persona seeing and describing vividly the Tollund Man, a human sacrifice to the pagan earth goddess, Nerthus, interred within a Danish bog. The Tollund Man was discovered by peat-cutters in 1950 and his origin confirmed by archaeologist P.V. Glob. Over 1500 years old yet almost perfectly preserved by the peat (“those dark juices working Him to a saint's kept body”), the Tollund Man and his fellow 'bog bodies' fascinated Heaney, himself something of an archaeologist. In “The Tollund Man”, Heaney writes almost as if he reveres the bog body, contrasting the pagan ritual – the sacrifice itself, with the Tollund Man becoming “bridegroom to the goddess” –

the concept of blasphemy. In the case of the Tollund Man. Very interestingly. The Tollund Man's sacrifice is expected to bring reward (the granting of the prayer) to the modern persona. in which the sacrifice has become an idol. as it was expected to in 400BC. Heaney has the persona contemplate praying at the bog. this 'end' is peace. Heaney identifies an archetypal pattern of human nature. we can see that Heaney views the Tollund Man not only as a saintly figure. trailed for miles along the lines”. the poem is revealed to not only be a lamenting of a sacrifice conducted over a millennium ago. consecration. Heaney describes a familiarity. but of the violence that has become a mainstay of modern day Ireland.with Christian diction – including images of a last supper (the Tollund Man's “last gruel”). described by Tacitus (a Roman historian) as the “Earth Mother”. this 'end' was perhaps for a greater harvest. “The Tollund Man” is not just a description of one sacrifice. “holy ground” and prayer. as it mentions in the third section of the poem “Graubelle” and “Nebelgard”. being referred to as “Him”. As the Tollund Man was sacrificed to Nerthus. Heaney discussed the earth as a symbol of Ireland or as something which with Ireland is intrinsically linked. ambushed flesh of labourers. unhappy and at home” in the “man-killing parishes” 'parishes' again referring to the religious nature of the conflict. As such. it could be seen that the Troubles are a sacrifice to the Mother Ireland. stockinged corpses laid out in the farmyards. It is seen that Heaney's persona prays for Ireland – to “make germinate the scattered. with the persona feeling “lost. Thus. it can be said that the Tollund Man is a symbol of of fruitful sacrifice that transcends time. Ironically. It can be said that Heaney's message is maturing. Indeed. In “Digging” and “Follower”. The final 'prayer' refers to folklore from Heaney's Catholic upbringing during the Troubles. the pagan sacrifice has become the Christian martyr. and the poem casts a wider scope in attempting to reveal a part of the universal human condition: ritualised violence as a means to an end. Another poem in which unmentioned historical detail allows Heaney to . in the case of the Irish Troubles. tell-tale skin and teeth flecking the sleepers of four young brothers. but more specifically a patron of an Ireland rife with sectarian violence. the story of the murder and mutilation of four young Catholic brothers by Protestant paramilitaries. drawing parallels between the two situations.

and your tar-black face was beautiful”. those in a similar situation as her – her “betraying sisters. the power imbalance . Yet.blows her nipples to amber beads. the Windeby Girl murdered. cauled in tar”. shaved. In death. all Catholic girls.comment on the human condition is “Punishment”. almost 2000 years ago.”. Another of Heaney's bog poems.. darkened by the tannins in the bog. Her fate is then revealed. as time shifts to before the girl's death. For Heaney. opening with “I can feel the tug. it can be said that it is the men who haven't changed. But who is the persona? Is he merely an observer of the exhumed bog body? Is he. these historical details include the public humiliation and tarring of the Falls Road and Londonderry teenagers. Quite obviously. the one with whom the Windeby Girl created “the memories of love”? The identity of the persona seems to shift throughout the poem. much like the Tollund Man.. the girl is sexualised through the use of sensory devices. “Punishment” contains many images and events which a modern day audience would be all too familiar with. bringing their own contexts into the equation. perhaps.. it shakes the frail rigging of her ribs”. for dating or marrying British soldiers. each context with its own historical details. the girl is seen by men in the same manner as she was in her lifetime. Thus. it is the girls who are punished for adultery. blackened with tar. as “Punishment” goes on to reveal. despite the fact that centuries have passed. but rather an abstract of all men. Heaney concludes the poem with the persona's reaction to these acts of punishment: a false visage of “civilised outrage”. and the persona feels twangs of guilt for his “poor scapegoat”.the moral self righteousness (that is. “Punishment” is a requiem for a “little adulteress”. if we were to accept a more feminist reading of the poem. This is juxtaposed against the judgement of the girls as “betraying” . Finally. Perhaps.. Heaney describes the girl's state: “flaxen-haired. Their faces. The poem then changes tone. “Punishment” concerns the role of women in society throughout history. undernourished. At the start of the poem. This was before her punishment! The poet creates sympathy for the girl and. with particular focus on the fragility and preciousness of her body: “the wind. stripped of her clothing. objectified and eroticised. The poem makes frequent use of the first person. and then drowned in the bog. are reminiscent of the Windeby Girl's own. on one level. and one could conclude that the persona is not one individual man.

the poet claims that the idea of retribution as justice - . over a millennium later in Londonderry. unbroken because of man's stubborn inability to do so. the persona is sympathetic towards the girl up until the point of her execution. In the poem. is seen to be acting against the victims) and “conniving in civilized outrage”. and in “Punishment”. and in both cases to comment on the faults of the human condition: the historical context of the poem. of which the entirety of society is ultimately a victim. and he also relies upon his readers' contexts. In these two poems. intimate revenge”. More broadly. where appropriate. It is this obedience in the respect of the accepted norms – the following of the tribe – that Heaney criticises. we are all born with the 'original sin' of an inherent attachment to violence and revenge. or against the Catholic teenagers. his own context. These have never been truly questioned. He has used different contexts to move beyond a singular. however. While he may love her in private. we see the importance of the poem's first person perspective. this does not seem to be much of a choice. as the persona says he would “understand the exact and tribal. Seamus Heaney has extended the meaning of the words on the page. the persona is merely the “artful voyeur” who “stood dumb”. the persona is guilty of conforming to societal norms.granted by societal norms) in this instance is used by Heaney to show hypocrisy. not only the physical punishment. fundamentalist Iran. Heaney says that humans are programmed to prefer bloodshed in solving problems. not after the brutality against the Windeby Girl in the Iron Age. or Troubles-era Ireland – that a part of the human condition has always been the subjugation of women. Heaney seems to take a personal culpability for the wrongs committed – again. In “Punishment”. casting the “stones of silence” (the silence. So it can be seen that throughout history – be it in Iron Age Germany. if Heaney is to be believed. to be cast out: as such. Heaney links this with his own (perhaps imagined) reaction upon seeing the punishment of young girls during the Troubles. in public he can choose to act with the tribe or against it. Until they are questioned. ruing the cruel cycles of history. In “The Tollund Man”. After all. Heaney seems also to comment on the “tribal” human lust for revenge. the cycle of violence will continue. “The Tollund Man” and “Punishment”. in this poem. isolated reading. As in “The Tolland Man”. However.

undernourished girl”. Perhaps Heaney is saying that peace. but instead believes that the human condition can. Surprisingly. however. Heaney firmly rejects these ideas. Heaney's poetry is not cynical. Either by leaving the reader with a sense of injustice.“an eye for an eye” . woman and child. equality and coexistence aren't unattainable things – we just have to want them. should and needs to change. He isn't resigned to these concepts. .is a commonality between every man. or by concentrating all our sympathies onto one “flaxen-haired.

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