Out of the Bag by Seamus Heaney

Within ‘Out of the Bag’ Heaney explores themes of childhood, coming of age, and family relationships. There are also sections and images that focus on life and death in general. The mood of the text varies from the first section which feels mainly light-hearted and humorous, to the following which is darker, portraying the scarier aspects of childhood.

 

Summary of Out of the Bag 

‘Out of the Bag’ by Seamus Heaney is a complex, touching poem that speaks on the pains and joys of birth, life, sickness, and death. 

 

Part I

In the first part of ‘Out of the Bag’ the speaker, who is likely Heaney at a very young age, depicts childbirth. Or, at least what he thinks childbirth is. Through a few compelling and lighthearted stanzas the young speaker describes the doctor, Doctor Kerlin, and his bag. It is from this bag that he and all his siblings emerged. There is true magic around the doctor and his bag that the young speaker is entranced by. He can’t quite understand it but has come to a charming conclusion about the origins of life. No doubt helped on by his parents. 

There are a few moments of darkness in amongst the joyful and humorous descriptions provided by this young speaker. He sees the doctor’s tools and imagines the horrors that could go on. The last line of this section sees the speaker imagine a child’s tiny “cock” as the flower in the doctor’s buttonhole. 

 

Parts II, III, and IV

Part II of ‘Out of the Bag’ is quite different than part I. The same themes are addressed but from a much older, wiser, and learned speaker. He uses ancient and contemporary histories to depict what medicine is and can be and how one goes about finding healing powers. Particularly he is interested in the world of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

The third section takes the reader into the 1950s and depicts, through vague and otherworldly language, a scene in which Heaney almost fainted and one in which he had a hallucination of the realm of Asclepius. 

‘Out of the Bag’ concludes with the speaker as a child again at his mother’s bedside talking to her after the birth of one of his siblings. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of Out of the Bag

Out of the Bag’ by Seamus Heaney is divided into two sections. The first is the longest at thirteen stanzas, and the second with ten, the fourth with five and the third with four. Each of these stanzas contains three lines, a formation known as a tercet. As was common within his poetry, Heaney chose not to use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in the text. But, there is a distinctive use of half-rhyme within the text.

Half-rhyme also is known as slant or partial rhyme and can be 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. Assonance, in particular, is important to this point. One very prominent occurrence is in the second stanza of the first section. The phrase “Those nosy, rosy”. Here, Heaney is using both half and full rhyme to influence the rhythm. There is another example in the following line with “lined insides” and the repetition of the long “i” sound.

 

Poetic Techniques in Out of the Bag 

Heaney makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Out of the Bag’. These include alliteration, enjambment, personification, and simile. The latter is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, in stanza three of the first section the phrase: “Then like a hypnotist / Unwinding us, he’d wind the instruments”. In this moment Heaney is speaking about a doctor who brings with him, a new born baby in his bag as a way of describing birth from a child’s perspective. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “bridal” and “birth” in the fourth section and “fainted and “fumes” in the second section. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment 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. There are examples throughout ‘Out of the Bag.’ Heaney leans heavily on enjambment in order to craft the rhythm of the poem and influence the way a reader moves through it. Examples can be seen in the transitions between all the lines in the seventh stanza in the section. 

Lastly, but certainly not the last technique used in ‘Out of the Bag,’ is personification. It occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics.  There is an example in the first section of the poem in which the doctor’s bag is described as having a mouth. 

 

Analysis of Out of the Bag 

Part I

Stanzas One and Two

In the first stanzas of ‘Out of the Bag,’ the speaker begins by introducing an extended metaphor that depicts the arrival of a new baby. The poem is told from the perspective of a child, probably Heaney himself. This child is under the impression that “All of us came in Doctor Kerlin’s bag”. He’s speaking about himself and all his siblings, presumably. The speaker describes the doctors actions in the next lines as he appears in the house, disappears into the room and then comes back out to wash his hands. 

There is a great example of assonance in the first line of the second stanza that is quite beneficial to the rhythm in this first portion of the poem. From descriptors like “rosy” and “soft” a reader can interpret something of the speaker’s perception of this person. The language in these lines is interesting. Heaney makes use of the word “scullery,” referring a utility room, as if he’s seeking from a different time, one more of the past. He also compares the inside of the bag to the inside of a dog’s ear. This is a charming and surprising reference that reminds the reader of the child’s limited knowledge, but also his imagination. 

 

Stanzas Three and Four

Still concentrating on the bag, the child describes how all of a sudden it is “empty for all to see”. He uses personification to depict its opening like a mouth. It is “Unsnibbed” or unlatched and “gaping wide”. There is a strangeness to the bag, one that alludes to its magical ability to produce children. 

The doctor puts his instruments away and leaves in the fourth stanza. Here, Heaney uses the phrase “Darken the door”. For the first time, there is something sinister in the text. The phrase “darken the door” is usually used negatively in reference to someone appearing at the door who is unwelcome. 

 

Stanzas Five and Six 

The doctor is only gone temporarily. He’ll soon be back again with the same bag (that is compared using a metaphor to Noah’s ark), disappear and reappearing act. This alludes to the pattern of childbirth in the home and the fact that women were more often than not always having children. 

The scene that the child is predicting, and that Heaney is recalling, is one that seems as though it has emerged from a Dutch painting. 

 

Stanzas Seven and Eight

The moments in stanzas seven and eight are basic, but their in-depth descriptions are brought out of the mundane and into the noteworthy. The child is fascinated by the way the doctor works and everything that must be done to prepare for his arrival. One has to get the water ready. It had to be “soft / Sud-luscious” or filled with soap” and  “saved for him from the rain-butt”. A reader should take note of the use of sibilance in these lines through the repetition of the “s” sound, mimicking the flow of water. 

The man’s skill and presence is respected, and the family offers him thanks after the birth that he “Denied”. He is efficient and steady, reading to leave as soon as he’s done what he came there to do.

 

Stanzas Nine, Ten, and Eleven

The “s” words continue in the next stanzas as the doctor is described sliding back into his coat. There is an important moment in the ninth stanza where the doctor turns to look at the speaker. His eyes focus on the child and he’s reminded of “Hyperborean”. This is a Greek utopia. He is getting a look into the doctor’s soul, his skill, and his knowledge. Whenever the “name was mentioned” he recalled this feeling.

In amongst the magic and otherworldliness, there is something darker and colder. The references to the ceramic and “swabbed porcelain” as well as that to “blood” in stanza eleven allude to the clinical parts of his profession and the inevitable loss and death. 

The surgery tools make an appearance in this section as well and it is easy to see that this child speaker holds a bit of fear in his heart for this man too. 

 

Stanzas Twelve and Thirteen

The twelfth stanza picks up right where the eleventh left off. Heaney delves into the child’s imagination (which could very well be his own) and explores what images come to mind. He thinks of bits of children’s bodies hung up “neatly from a line up near the ceiling”. Everything from a toe to a cock is mentioned. These lines portray the doctor in a very different light. Perhaps he is not the benign, god-like figure he began the poem as, but something darker. 

The last line is humorous and breaks some of the tension that was building. The child recalls the “rosebud in” the doctor’s “buttonhole”. It resembles, suspiciously, a little “cock”. 

 

Part II

Stanzas One and Two

The second part of ‘Out of the Bag’ is slightly shorter at only ten stanzas. These lines are much more complicated and introduce religion and literature. First, the speaker refers to Peter Levi, a Jesuit teacher and poet. Heaney compares the doctor to this person as if he’s been reincarnated as him. He is in another time in which the “Sanctuaries of Asclepius,” the Greek god of healing, are the only kinds of hospitals present. 

 

Stanzas Three and Four

These lines are complex and quite different from the first section of the poem. Here, the speaker refers to the town of Epidaurus in Greece. It is there that one can find a shrine to Asclepius.

The next lines reference a “site of incubation” or safety. There, one found sleep and the answers within their dreams. Within greek myth it was believed that cures for illness were to be found within dreams of Asclepius. He would present the dreamer with the “epiphany” they needed to save themself.  

 

Stanzas Five and Six 

Heaney takes the reader taken into the contemporary world in the fifth stanza. Heaney recalls his own travels and a time at which he came close to fainting in Lourdes in 1956. In this memory, he was a “thurifer,” or someone who carries the censer in a religious ceremony. Therefore, his near-fainting spell would’ve been far more dramatic than if he’d been playing a different role. 

There was a second near-fainting spell later when he was pulling grass and hallucinated. 

 

Stanzas Seven and Eight

The hallucination contain a vision of “Doctor Kerlin at the steamed-up glass / Of [his family’s] scullery window”. He recalls his vividly red, rosy fingers come back into the text again. The man, in the hallucination, drew on the window images that reminiscent of the child’s thoughts about children’s body parts. These lines speak to creation, and not an altogether perfect or pure one.

 

Stanzas Nine and Ten

In the final two lines of part II of ‘Out of the Bag,’ the speaker brings the doctor back to his main role, birthing children. Images of soap and water are connected to “baby bits” that “all came tougher” through and into his “soapy big hygienic hands”. 

The hallucination comes to an end and the speaker is back in his right mind. He is weakened by this vision but has come to “the windless light”. He’s had an epiphany of sorts, like those one would look for in Ancient Greece. 

 

Part III

Stanzas One and Two

The third part of ‘Out of the Bag’ is only four stanzas long. Here, the speaker brings the reader back to the grass he was pulling. This connects again to medicine, suffering, and the desire to help. He posts, or sends, off the grass to “one going into chemotherapy” in a gesture of goodwill and faith. In the fourth stanza, he alludes to peace in this place he has found as if he’s in a version of Hyperborean. There, he’s separate from other people and the weather seems to be ideal. 

 

Stanzas Three and Four

In the next lines, it is revealed that he is in the realm of healing and the gods. He’s at the site of the “Temple of Asclepius” and he wants to stay there. It’s his intention to lie down “under seeded grass” and be listed by “Hygeia,” the goddess of cleanliness. She presents as the “undarkening door,” the opposite of Doctor Kerlin.  He can say “Under hogweed,” a plant that causes painful blistering, because of the world he’s in. It proves that he’s somewhere that’s beyond suffering. 

 

Part IV

Stanzas One and Two

In the final part of ‘Out of the Bag,’ Heaney returns to the room from “all of us came from”. Us, meaning his siblings. The room is of great importance to him. It’s one of birth and death. There, he can see the best sheets that were put on the bed for the doctor and the usual and usefulness of them. 

 

Stanzas Three, Four, and Five

Heaney looks on his mother in these lines. He remembers being at her bedside and watching her drift in and out of sleep. She appears peaceful and at ease in this moment, on the bed where he and all his siblings came into the world. These moments come directly after the birth of another child. 

The poem concludes with Heaney’s mother’s words. She addresses her son, asking him what he thinks of the “new wee baby the doctor brought for us all”. This is a calm, joyful moment that brings this long poem around to the person who truly brought the child into the world, the mother. But, it also relates to the child speaker’s perception of the world, playing into the idea that the children come from the doctor’s bag.

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