‘Bogland’ by Seamus Heaney was published in 1969 in the collection Door into the Dark. It is divided into seven stanzas, each of which contains four lines. These are known as quatrains. The lines do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments of rhyme in the text. Heaney uses half or slant rhymes throughout the poem. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse.
Heaney chose to make use of scattered instances of rhyme in order to provide the text with some rhythmic unity, but not get bogged down by a particular structure. This technique also ensures that the focus remains on the images and their meanings. It also speaks to the true complexity of free verse poetry. For example, the words “skeleton” and “Elk” in the second stanza, which is connected due to similar vowel sounds. Or, “Missing” and “millions” in the fifth stanza.
The speaker begins the text by telling the reader that Ireland does not have prairies. It is enclosed and wild. It is “unfenced” or unconfined, but it also “keeps crusting”.The third stanza of ‘Bogland’ speaks to a dismantling of history and heritage. An undefined they come into the bog and takes the “Great Irish Elk”.
The poem ends with the speaker stating that no one is going to be able to mine coal there. Rather, there are only fallen trees and pioneers digging into the history of the country.
You can read the full poem here.
In the first lines, and towards the end of the poem with a reference to pioneers, Heaney juxtaposes two different kinds of landscapes. That which exists in the American west, and that of Ireland. The latter has its own pioneers, but they search through the bogland for information about the past. This is contrasted with the American prairies and the pioneers who traveled during the great westward expansion. They were looking towards the future.
Alliteration is another important technique in ‘Bogland’. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “black butter” in the fourth stanza and “sights” and “sun” in the second.
Enjambment can be seen when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example the transition between lines three and four of the sixth stanza. Here, a reader has to move to the fourth line to find out how the pioneers were searching.
Analysis of Bogland
We have no prairies
In the first stanza, the speaker begins by referring to “We”. Heaney is speaking about the Irish people, from a general perspective rather than just his own. His words describe Ireland, its history, and its physical landscape.
He tells the listener the Irish do not have “prairies”. There are no big open places the sun can cast its light down on. The horizon is always close, never at a distance. He describes this as if it is “Encroaching” on anyone trying to look into the distance. This makes Ireland seem as though it is enclosed, cramped and full. It is the bogland referenced in the title.
Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Between the sights of the sun.
In the second stanza, the “eye” turns inward to “a tarn,” or small mountain lake. He goes on to directly compare Ireland to a bog. It is “unfenced” or unconfined, but it also “keeps crusting”. He is thinking about the bogland “Between the sights of the sun”. This should make one think of good times and bad, the opening and closing of an eye, and how it relates to the bog. The speaker sees the land as very much alive. It watches, as eyes do, but does not act.
They’ve taken the skeleton
(…)An astounding crate full of air.
The third stanza of ‘Bogland’ speaks to a dismantling of history and heritage. The undefined “They,” (seemingly a reference colonizers, or anyone wanting to take advantage of the land) have removed important things. These are symbolized through the “Great Irish Elk,” or deer. It is now extinct, therefore making it all the more important.
The intruding “they” took the elk from “Out of the peat,” a layer of soil usually found in bogs, and set it up. Irish history is being put on display, set out like a fossil of an extinct animal for onlookers to marvel at. The last line is interesting as the speaker refers to the discovery as “astounding” but also as “full of air.”
It is in the end, meaningless and worthless. This could also reference the fact that once removed from the bog, any preserved animal would start to fall apart. In this case, when Irish history is removed from its origins, it disintegrates.
Butter sunk under
The ground itself is kind, black butter
The speaker continues to describe the land. In it, “Butter sunk under”. It was there for “More than a hundred years” but rather than falling apart, it came back out as it went in. It was “salty and white” when it was recovered, which leads the speaker to consider how similar the land itself is to butter.
In contrast, the land is black rather than white butter. It is clear through this vibrant and complicated depiction of the land that the speaker cares deeply about it and wants to find a way to accurately represent it.
Melting and opening underfoot,
They’ll never dig coal here,
The land, just like butter, melts underfoot. It “open[s]” up when trod on. As the speaker tries to come to some definition of what the land is like, he states that it is “millions of years” from its “last definition”. This indicates that the land is either still changing, or has not changed for that period of time.
At this point, a reader should notice how important time is becoming to the poem. Each stanza has an element within it that speaks to the passage of time and the impact it has on the land.
The stanza concludes with the speaker stating that “They,” those who the speaker sees as outsiders, will “never dig coal here”. They won’t be able to come into the “bogland” as they might in other places and starting mining.
Only the waterlogged trunks
Inwards and downwards,
Rather than coal, the only things present in the land are “waterlogged trunks / Of great firs”. This speaks again to the wildness and untamed nature of Ireland. It does not have the industrial presence that other countries do. Its “pioneers” are still searching. These pioneers are added into the text as a direct comparison to American pioneers. Just as the prairie land in the first stanza referenced the American landscape. Both speak to expansion and exploration.
The pioneers of Ireland are searching, but into the past rather than the future. They are going into the center of the bog and down. Continuing the metaphor, the pioneers are searching for and through the history of Ireland and it seems like they are not reaching any solid, final conclusions. Their journeys continue on.
Every layer they strip
The wet centre is bottomless.
In the last four lines of ‘Bogland’ the speaker continues to describe the efforts of the pioneers. They are stripping away the layers of the bog but whenever they get to what they think is a new level, it turns out to have been “camped on before.” Their efforts seem to be getting them nowhere.
The final line speaks about how bottomless the bog is. The “wet centre” goes on forever and those who want to recover from the past are going nowhere. It is clear the speaker feels disappointed by this feature of his country and its history.