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Seamus Heaney. Early Life and Literary Influences

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“Old yew, which graspest at the stones / That name the underlying dead, / Thy fibres net the dreamless head, / Thy roots are wrapped about the bones” (Lord Tennyson 1-4). As a budding college student at Queen’s University Belfast, Heaney was introduced to authors such as Tennyson, Keats, and Wordsworth. This quote, by Lord Tennyson, acted as a turning point for Seamus Heaney in that it pushed him off the precipice of ambivalent writing into a chasm of emotion-based poetry. During his last year of college, Heaney read another poem by Louis MacNeice and was struck by the words, “The pier glittering with crystal lumps…” and “the hard cold fire of this northerner” (O’Driscoll 50). Borrowing from these famous poets’ techniques and incorporating a bit of his own panache, Heaney began to develop his own literary and poetic style which, combined, grew to make his poems the striking works that they are today. However, not all of Heaney’s experiences at Belfast were overtly positive. Throughout and after his schooling at Belfast in the Republic of Ireland, Heaney lived amidst war, and thus was inevitably introduced to the atrocities of murder and brutality. His later encounters with bog bodies helped Heaney release the emotions trapped inside of him because of the war. He compiled those emotions into poems and, in “The Grauballe Man,” focused those feelings into one idea: society does not deem the sanctity of human life worth preserving, especially during times of war.

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Heaney’s experiences with injustice and war at Belfast shaped his feelings about human violence, and thus, the disregard for the sacredness of human life. He wrote of his feelings about the war, “the weary twisted emotions…are rolled like a ball of hooks and sinkers in the heart” (Heaney 30). The horror of surviving explosions and seeing families torn apart by death and suffering, and living with the Army constantly watching with pointed guns took its toll on Heaney. Raising a young family during all of the surrounding turmoil was extremely difficult. Constantly worrying about his wife, children, and his own life, Heaney came to abhor the agony and savagery of war, but had very few ways to express his feelings. In Feeling Into Words he wrote, “I felt it imperative to discover a field of force in which, without abandoning fidelity to the processes and experience of poetry as I have outlined them, it would be possible to encompass the perspectives of a humane reason…” (Heaney 56).

The inspiration for that “field of force” struck Heaney in 1969 while reading about the bog bodies of Denmark in a book he had bought himself for Christmas. He read the words of P.V. Glob in The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved, pouring over descriptions and images of the mummified, leathery, human remains. Imagining the lives of these mud-caked bodies, and concocting in his mind tales of their fates, Heaney was enthralled by these mysterious remains. He determined to travel and see the bog bodies which so inspired him.

Before he could visit the museum, however, Heaney was just another viewer of the photographs of the bodies. In the beginning of “The Grauballe Man,” Heaney shows the public’s portrayal, and his own original dehumanizing opinion, of the bog bodies. He describes the remains as aquatic, vegetative, mineral, animalistic, and lastly, fetal material. Line five of “The Grauaballe Man” reads, “the black river of himself.” Heaney here depicts the Grauballe man as a river, a non-living entity, dirty and disgusting. Lines 6-7: “The grain of his wrists / is like bog oak,” characterizing the Grauballe man as a plant or a tree with a wood-like grain apparent on his wrists. In this line we can see Heaney imitating Tennyson in using organic matter to provide imagery of the body, just as Tennyson wrote “Thy roots are wrapped around the bones,” (Lord Tennyson 4). Then, in lines 8-9, “the ball of his heel like a basalt egg:” here Heaney shows the Grauballe man as nothing more than a hard, porous, black rock. With the word “egg” he also moves towards describing the remains as animalistic. He then writes “his instep has shrunk cold as a swan’s foot or a wet swamp root” in lines 10-12, moving further into the animalistic characterization and reminding the reader of the vegetative aspects of the body as well. In this part of the poem Heaney metaphorically removes any trace of humanity from the body. This dehumanization is a reflection of the way the British dehumanized the Irish during The Troubles. The British treated the Irish just as they would a log of oak in a bog or a black rock on the side of the road: they would kick them with a boot or trample them without a second thought.

The next lines, 13-16 read, “His hips are the ridge / and purse of a mussel, / his spine an eel arrested / under a glisten of mud.” Continuing his animal comparison, Heaney describes the body as sea creatures—his hips like a mussel, and his spine like an eel encased in mud. Later in the poem Heaney depicts the body, “And his rusted hair, / a mat unlikely as a foetus’s…a head and shoulder / out of the peat, / bruised like a forceps baby.” He here exhibits the body as fetal matter, as if a baby, roughly grabbed in the doctor’s forceps as he’s plucked from the womb and exposed to daylight. Heaney composed these lines to portray a potent opinion: that the world views the bog bodies as England viewed Ireland, and as the world views all victims of war and violence—as less than human and unworthy of respect, meant only to be put on display and exhibited to the world.

At the end of the poem, Heaney compares the dehumanization of the bog bodies to the dehumanization of the Irish citizens victimized during The Troubles. The archeological history of the Grauballe man paralleled some of the injustices of Operation Demetrius, a British army operation in the course of the war (Operation Demetrius 1). For example, the last words of “The Grauballe Man” are “each hooded victim slashed and dumped.” During Operation Demetrius, 14 men were captured and tortured. As part of their torture, each man was hooded, and exposed to loud hissing noises, deprived of sleep, denied food and water, and finally, were taken on a helicopter, told they were far above the ground (when in reality they were only a few feet above the earth) in order to scare them, and then were dumped off the helicopter (Operation Demetrius 1). The poem also mentions “the grain of his wrists.” Operation Demetrius involved hand-cuffing the prisoners, which left deep bruises on their wrists (Operation Demetrius 1). These 14 men, just like the Grauballe man, were seen as mere bodies instead of actual human beings.

As a representation of the continued dehumanization of the Irish citizens which occurred as the British troops overtook Ireland and the citizens were forced to militarize, Heaney also characterizes the Grauballe man as a knight. As a soldier, or a knight, one’s humanity and individuality is lost as war is thrust upon them. They must succumb to the violence, fighting for survival. In lines 17-20, he illustrates “The head lifts, / the chin is a visor / raised above the vent / of his slashed throat.” The Grauballe man has been so completely militarized in these lines that his chin is described as a visor. And not at all referred to as a person, his body parts are noted individually: “the head,” “the chin.” Almost as an afterthought, it is written that the Grauballe man’s throat is slashed, showing the British army’s utter disregard for human life. Heaney continues to use the craft of poetry to further impress his opinion that people are completely disregarded and disrespected during times of war.

At the Mosegaard Museum in Aarhus, Heaney saw the Grauballe man in person. Scribbling words on a paper which happened to be in his pocket, Heaney wrote the notes which later were transformed into “The Grauballe Man.” For the first time, he realized the Grauballe man, and all the bog people, were individuals with unique stories, just like each of the Irish victims of the war. The media and news portrayed the Irish citizens as mere showpieces and stories to create profit. The museums exhibited the bog bodies in that same light. In his poem, Heaney addresses this media and public dehumanization of real people as if it were the same as the British dehumanization of the Irish.

Towards the end of the poem he compares the body to the Dying Gaul, a famous sculpture of a fallen gladiator. Here Heaney changes the mood of the poem. In depicting the body as a wounded gladiator, he brings a sense of majesty and valor in direct juxtaposition to the disrespect and flippancy shown to the Grauballe man (and thus, Ireland) by the world throughout the rest of the poem. Later, in lines 25-28, Heaney wrote “Who will say ‘corpse’ / to his vivid cast? / Who will say ‘body’ / to his opaque repose?” As if in response to this question, Heaney’s characterization of the body as a gladiator instead of a knight seems to scream “I will!” and portray his respect, respect which was so thoroughly denied the Grauballe man by the public.

Through “The Grauballe Man,” Heaney composes a representation of his realization of the horrors of war-plagued reality. He used the poetic skills he learned while studying at Belfast to show that the exhibition of the bog bodies is akin to the dehumanization and militarization of the Irish citizen during The Troubles, and further, all victims of war. This exhibition is essentially the public preying on the lives and deaths of people fallen victim to the tragedies of human violence, which is unacceptable. The poetically described fate of the Grauballe man cries out as an emblem of the fate of many fallen victim to war and terror. His remains are a symbol of the injustices of humanity throughout generations.

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