‘The Tollund Man’ by Seamus Heaney was published in his collection Wintering Out. It is a three part poem divided into a total of eleven stanzas, all of which contain four lines. Heaney did not choose to give this poem a specific rhyme scheme, but the lines are all of similar lengths.
Context to The Tollund Man
The poem was inspired by a sealed and preserved prehistoric man discovered in a bog in the Jutland Peninsula, Denmark in 1950. From what scientists could learn from the body it was determined that the man had lived during the 4th century BCE. Scientists believe the man was part of a ritual of human sacrifice and died by strangulation.
The body caught the public’s attention because of the quality of its preservation. All the facial features are distinguishable, as was the man’s dying expression. In fact, the body was mistaken for a recent murder victim when it was first discovered.
Symbolism in The Tollund Man
As the poem progresses from a fairly straightforward description of the Tollund Man it becomes clear that the body symbolizes a number of important things to Heaney. Due to the nature of the man’s death, these include sacrifice and devoutness. Before his death, the Tollund Man believed that his sacrifice would benefit his people in some critical way. He gave up his life in order so those he cared about might have better lives. It is through this lens that Heaney considers the man and the land in which he was found.
He compares the sacrifice the Tollund Man made for his people to that the Irish are engaging in. They too hope that their lives might mean something and in the end benefit those they love, their larger community and country.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Tollund Man
‘The Tollund Man’ by Seamus Heaney uses the discovery of the Tollund Man to speak on the larger issues of violence during “the Troubles”.
In the first lines of the poem the speaker gives a few basic details about the mummified man, such as what he was wearing and where he was found. He also expresses his desire to visit the man, comparing the journey to a pilgrimage.
In the next section he starts to compare the preserved man to those who have fought and died in Northern Ireland. The poem concludes with the speaker predicting what it would be like to visit the area. He decides he’d feel sad, but also very much at home.
Analysis of The Tollund Man
In the first stanza of ‘The Tollund Man’ the speaker begins by declaring that one day he’s going to go to “Aarhus”. With some contextual details it quickly becomes clear that this is a place name, referencing the second largest city in Denmark, and a location very near to the museum in which the body of the Tollund Man is on display. Heaney’s speaker addresses Aarhus as if it is a site of pilgrimage.
He intends to go there, and engage in the appreciation of the Tollund Man and of his symbolic and historical importance. He outlines in the next lines some of the man’s features he’s going to see. They include his brown coloured head, the “mild pods of his eyelids” and his “pointed skin cap”. A reader should take note of the use of alliteration in these three lines as Heaney uses and reuses words beginning with the letter “p”.
In the second stanza Heaney’s speaker goes into more detail about where the man was found, what his original environment was like, how it impacted his body, and how he physically appeared when he was discovered.
Heaney first discusses the location where the body was discovered. The landscape was a flat, relatively deserted bogland in the countryside. Very simply, Heany’s speaker adds that scientists were able to determine the man’s last meal was still in his stomach. It was a “gruel of winter seeds”. The meal was very basic and is used in this poem to humanize the man who is so distant from modern readers. It is also a very interesting and vibrant detail that helps one to better understand the situation. Additionally, these lines tell the reader something about the man’s environment, the season he was living in, and the resources he had access to.
In the third stanza he describes how the Tollund Man was wearing nothing, “except for / The cap”. This is a reference to the sheepskin cap that the man was wearing when he was discovered. There were no other clothing items on the body. But, those who removed the body from the bog discovered that there was a noose around the man’s neck. At one point, scientists thought the man who died by hanging, but the cause of death was later reassessed and determined to be strangulation.
The speaker returns to describing how he intends to address the man by saying that he’s going to stand “a long time” staring at this preserved fragment of history. There is a bit of ambiguity in the fourth line of the third stanza as the speaker states that someone, either himself, the Tollund Man,, or both are the “bridegroom to the goddess”. The Tollund Man was granted something like eternal life by the unknown “goddess”. But, at the same time, considering the first lines of the text which compare the speaker’s intended trip to a pilgrimage, one might want to consider the speaker’s own relationship to a higher power.
In the fourth stanza it becomes clear that, at least since most directly Heaney was intending the Tollund Man to be the bridegroom. He describes how this unknown goddess took her control of the man. She “tightened her torc on him“. A torc is defined as an ornament one wears around their neck. In this instance, it is described as something like a collar from which the man could be controlled.
Heaney’s speaker also states that the goddess “opened up her fen”. This is a reference to a marshy area of land, such as that which the body was discovered in. She absorbed him within it. The metaphorical goddess used the “dark juices“ of the marsh to preserve his body. He compares this preservation to the way in which saint’s body parts are preserved throughout the world, and commonly kept within reliquaries.
The next lines are in reference to the land itself, and to the fact that this area of bog played host to more than one of these rediscovered, ancient bodies. He concludes this first section of the poem by stating that this man, who is for any number of reasons important to the speaker, is now resting at Aarhus.
The second part of the Tollund Man is shorter than the first, containing only three stanzas, each of which is still four lines long. He begins with a striking statement, saying that he “could risk blasphemy”. He’s willing to go against the tenants of the church and “consecrate the cauldron bog”. This is of course another reference to the land in which the man was found, and relates back to Heany’s previous comments regarding his pilgrimage to the location, and the divine qualities of the preserved, immortal-seeming, man.
It is at this point that the poet turns the poem to focus on a topic that’s very common within his cannon, the troubles in Northern Ireland. He imagines that the ground the man was found in, as well as that which the others (known as bod bodies) were discovered, could return the lost Irish citizens to their families.
The second stanza of the section goes into more detail. The speaker wants the “scattered, ambushed / Flesh of labourers”. to be returned from the ground. At the same time, he has no hope that this will be the case. He is simply able to draw a direct comparison between the ground in Denmark and the ground he walks on in Ireland. Both landscapes play host to a number of lost bodies,. There are other more direct connections when one considers the more complex symbolism around the Tollund Man and his sacrifice.
He represents a desire to better one’s community through the giving of one’s own life. The Tollund Man died through ritual human sacrifice. It is unlikely that scientists will ever know for sure what reason the Tollund Man gave his life. Perhaps though it was to do with unfavourably changing weather patterns or generally bettering the community’s way of life. Heaney is able to relate the sacrifice to the continual sacrifice of Irish men and women in Northern Ireland. These fighters who are dying all around him are also giving their lives for a common cause. They too fill the ground at his feet.
In the second and third stanza of this section it is very clear that Heanyy wants to paint a simple portrait of his people. They are not skilled fighters who enjoy engaging in battle. Instead, they are an uncomplicated group of farmers and labourers, brothers and sons, who want nothing more than their freedom.
The third part of this poem also contains three stanzas. In the first Heaney predicts that while traveling through Denmark he’s going to feel something of the man’s “sad freedom”. He thinks about the man riding through the countryside, experiencing the last moments of his life. He knows a lot about what this means, physically, mentally and emotionally. Heaney has also experienced the desire to make the ultimate sacrifice for those he loves.
In the second stanza he recites three different names. The first is recognizable, but the next two, “Grauballe, Nebelgard,” are new. They both reference other locations in Denmark and which similar bog bodies were discovered. He is considering what it would be look at the “pointing hand /of country people“. Their hands are pointing, as if in judgment or declaration. He is clearly relating them to his people, who are in a continual struggle for their personal rights. But, Heaney also make sure to mention that this is not his land, he does not know their “tongue“.
In the last four lines he predicts that when he goes out into Jutland, the area of Denmark in which the body was found, and travels to the “old man killing parishes”, he will feel lost. The parishes are another religious reference in connection to the bogland. He predicts that he will at once feel unhappy and very much at home.
This conclusion falls in perfectly with the rest of the poem. Heaney has been discussing the similarities between the sacrifice of this ancient man and the sacrifice of his own countrymen.