Stephanie Alexander
Indiana State University | Published: 17 March, 2023
ISSUE 18 | Pages: 11-24 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2023 by Stephanie Alexander | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

This essay considers Seamus Heaney’s early pastoral poetry through the lens of Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, the fearful and feminine Other. Abjection offers a way of reading and understanding the creeping darkness and fearful fertility of Heaney’s early landscapes, which are often more complex and less celebratory than Heaney’s reputation as a nature poet would suggest.  This essay utilizes abjection in order to propose a reading of these early poems that puts into conversation both the geopolitical reality of Northern Ireland and the role that gender traditionally has played in Irish poetry, complicating and clarifying both of these positions.

Este ensayo considera la temprana poesía pastoral de Seamus Heaney a través de la lente de la noción de Julia Kristeva del Otro abyecto, temeroso y femenino.  La abyección ofrece una forma de leer y comprender la progresiva oscuridad y la temible fertilidad de los primeros paisajes de Heaney, que a menudo son más complejos y menos festivos de lo que sugiere la reputación de Heaney como poeta de la naturaleza.  Este ensayo utiliza la abyección para proponer una lectura de estos primeros poemas que pone en conversación tanto la realidad geopolítica de Irlanda del Norte como el papel que tradicionalmente ha jugado el género en la poesía irlandesa, complicando y aclarando ambas posiciones.

Seamus Heaney; poscolonial; pastoral; abjección; Irlanda del Norte; poesía; género.

As a poet who became famous as a chronicler of rural Ireland, Heaney’s work is often categorized as pastoral poetry, and Heaney himself has valorised and defended the importance of pastoral poetry.  In “In the Country of Convention,” he asserts that the pastoral is not a tradition of antiquity, but rather a vibrant and current project, citing the work of Kavanagh and Synge — and by extension, of course, himself (Heaney 1980a: 180).  Although the pastoral played a significant role throughout Heaney’s body of work, his early representations of the pastoral, or perhaps the anti-pastoral[1], have been tinged with something darker, more malignant, more frightening, than the typical bucolic odes to country living that are generally associated with pastoral writing.[2]  Rather, Heaney presents a version of the pastoral in which the purity of country life is always endangered, always encroached upon.  If the anti-pastoral offers a chance for the rural to critique the urban, for the shepherd to see what others cannot, Heaney’s early pastoral presents moments in which the “natural” world is tinged with the unnatural, the frightening, the impure. These tropes of infection, of things-fearfully-out-of-place, read within the framework of Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, offers a perspective on Heaney’s early pastoral poems which I identify as an abject pastoral.  Viewing Heaney’s early pastoral poems through this abject lens puts into conversation both Ireland’s (post)colonial status and the role that gender plays — in both these poems in particular and the pastoral in general.  More broadly, this reading seeks to make explicit connections between Heaney’s early pastoral poems and a broader postcolonial pastoral.

For Kristeva, as she reimagines psychoanalysis through a feminist lens, abjection is a concept she defines as that which must be pushed out, that which must be abjured.  The abject’s existence must be denied in order for the Symbolic Order to function — for it to exist at all.  She writes that the abject is “what disturbs identity, system, order.  What does not respect borders, positions, rules.  The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva 1982: 4).  Abjection, then, is the horror caused by the non-object that weakens the boundary between subject and object, Self and (M)other, that threatens meaning, structure, and everything that has been created and defined by the patriarchal Symbolic Order. Because Ireland exists in a space of both geographic proximity to and cultural distance from England, Kristeva’s notion of abjection offers a particularly useful lens for considering both Ireland’s relationship to England and the ways that Irish literature has approached geopolitical realities.  If abjection looms large in those spaces where the distinction between Self and Other grows thin, it stands to reason that Ireland, by its very nature as both a colony and a colluder, a victim of British imperialism and a sometime-benefactor of England’s imperial reach throughout much of the rest of the world, might be a potentially abject space.

In this delineation of Self and Other, of boundaries that exist to maintain order, we encounter immediate and visceral connections to postcolonial theory.  If, following Said, we accept as axiomatic that empire functions through the othering of the colonized, abjection offers a provocative lens through which to consider postcoloniality.  Theorists like Homi Bhabha have written about notions of hybridity and mimicry as potentially subversive modes of existence for colonized peoples, offering moments of reprieve from colonizer/colonized binaries, options for identity formation that can challenge and move beyond Self/Other categorical splits.   I suggest that abjection can work in much the same way in a postcolonial ecocritical reading, where abjection in “natural” landscapes can offer moments, however briefly, where the boundaries between Self and Other, colonizer and colonized, break down and blur, where the established order of things, empire itself, is in peril.  Likewise, abjection offers a critical method for interrogating and destabilizing traditional understandings of womanhood in Irish literature and culture.[3]  These traditional models of womanhood include the likes of Cathleen ni Houlihan, the old hag; or the goddess Eire, from whom the island takes its name; or the Virgin Mary, who stands as the epitome of ideal Irish womanhood.  Abjection, instead of celebrating or reifying traditional gender roles like beatific maternity and eternal suffering, presents a horrible, frightening notion of female excess — a move that both valorises women as potentially powerful and excludes them as Other.[4]

Multiple examples in Heaney’s ouvre, particularly in his early collections, illustrate that his presentation of the pastoral, and the fertile, life-affirming gifts that the genre typically celebrates, is frequently tinged with images of death, of rot, of decay, of frightening and monstrous sexuality (moments in which queer/ed reproductions take the place of the “good” and “natural” cycles of life).  These elements that appear in Heaney’s poems of place ultimately suggest a lingering ghost of the abject haunting the patriarchal and colonial landscape of the pastoral tradition—one that is sometimes overlooked in favour of a reading that is less complicated, more earthy and “pure.”[5]  For instance, in early reviews of Heaney’s work he is almost unanimously considered a poet, first and foremost, of a very rural Northern Ireland.  Indeed, in one of his earliest reviews he is described as a poet of “muddy booted blackberry picking;” and “Blackberry Picking,” a poem from his first collection, 1967’s Death of a Naturalist, offers an ideal point to begin considering how abjection shapes Heaney’s pastoral presentations.

“Blackberry Picking,” a reminiscence of childhood summers spent traipsing out to pick berries, ultimately ends with the narrator mourning the transience of the sweet fruit, the creeping rot that overtakes them before they can be eaten.  A deceptively simple poem, “Blackberry Picking” contains a looming abjection that predicts the fate of the berries—and the disappointment that fate will cause the narrator. It is late August, the narrator says, when the berries will be ready, that first ripe berry a “glossy purple clot / Among others red, green, hard as a knot” (Heaney 1999b: 7).  Heaney chooses a telling end-word, as among a “knot” of unripe berries, the one that will presumably taste the sweetest is described as a “clot,” a pocket of blood waiting to burst, something nearly fearful in its fecundity.  Indeed, the flesh of that first berry was as sweet as “thickened wine,” and “summer’s blood was in it” (Heaney 1999b: 7).  The image is at once harmless and nearly frightening in its bloody excess, illuminating the lurking dangers of ripeness and fertility.  “Summer’s blood” encapsulates the abject here; summer is associated with ripeness, life, bounty — but it is also, “Blackberry Picking” suggests, a bloody business, dangerous in its excess.  The very thing that is most appealing about the berries — their ripeness — is also what will render them so soon rotten.  Heaney continues to interject moments of near-fear into the idyllic recounting of the berry season, writing of the pleasant hunger that

Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots

Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills

We trekked and picked until the cans were full,

Until the tinkling bottom had been covered

With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned

Like a plate of eyes.  Our hands were peppered

With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.  (Heaney 1999b: 7)

Heaney layers the benign and nostalgic images of a rural childhood (gathering berries in “milk cans, pea tins, jam pots,” traipsing “round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills”) with what becomes, suddenly, darker: the berries become a “plate of eyes,” and the children’s berry-stained hands make small but vicious Bluebeards of them all.   In Heaney’s hands, the berry picking children become akin to marauders, performing an almost violent act of harvest. [6]

The poem’s narrator recounts the inevitable, disappointing end to the berry season, when in their store of blackberries they always “found a fur, / “a rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache” (Heaney 1999b: 7).  The simple, natural joy of the berries is always short-lived, little more than a dream, as the very thing that makes the berries ripe and possible, the fecundity of nature, is also the thing that ruins them, turning them too quickly over to rot.  Heaney’s young narrator is all too aware of the brevity of the season: “I always felt like crying.  It wasn’t fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. / Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not” (Heaney 1999b: 7).  The creeping rot is omnipresent, inescapable, no matter what measures are taken to eradicate it.  Like the children’s stained hands, the looming presence of an abject over-abundance of nature (too much fertility, an over-ripened rot) is unavoidable.

Interestingly, these excesses of fertility also link Heaney to a host of other postcolonial writers and tropes through what David Arnold coined as tropicality.  For Arnold, writing about how nature offered a vista upon which colonial discourse was writ large, tropicality refers to the colonized view of the colonies (in the Southern hemisphere, in Arnold’s lens) as overly abundant and pestilent.  Arnold argues that the colonizer’s view of the colonies was that of a wildly fertile space which, unless harnessed, could quickly veer out of control, representing a fearful over-fecundity.  He ultimately identifies in the European application of tropicality to a region the invocation of “a host of scientific and scenic ideas that ranged from the paradisical to the pestilential,” above all a way of classifying otherness (Arnold 2006: 35).  Although Heaney’s Irish bogs are a far cry from the tropical jungles of the Southern hemisphere, they are linked in their frightening excess.  And, of course, it is worth considering the long-standing association that the Irish have with fertility and excess in general; the two most omnipresent stereotypes about Irish people continue to be that the Irish are excessive drinkers and have large families.  The fecundity of the Irish is, interestingly, attributed to two sources — both the Catholic Church’s frowning upon birth control and a more innate, “natural” urge toward excessive procreation.[7]

This excessive reproductive force present in Heaney’s nature poems is not something that has gone unnoticed; Donna Potts comments that Heaney’s work is ripe with an “overwhelming fecundity of nature” (Potts 2011: 52).  She treads even nearer to an acknowledgement of abjection as she continues, noting that Heaney presents “nature as a terrifying, engulfing force, rather than a gentle teacher or mother” (Potts 2011: 52).  In so many words, Potts identifies the abject in Heaney’s work — the horrible, frightening fertility that is not “gentle teacher” but the terrifying maternal force of abjection, capable of both giving and taking life, that which hovers on the edges of nature, on the edges of Self.  In taking Potts’s almost casual observation one step further and moving into the realm of abjection, we access a point where gender and geopolitics meet, offering an analysis that accounts, in Heaney’s case, for the complicated nature of both traditional Irish femininity and the colonial past/present.

The difference between what I am terming Heaney’s use of the abject pastoral or what Donna Potts has termed as an “overwhelming fecundity” and the notion of tropicality espoused by David Arnold, of course, is that Arnold is writing about tropicality as a way for colonizers to view the colonized; Heaney, on the other hand, uses excessive fertility to write about his own native land.  It is an important distinction, and one that illustrates Ireland’s situation as a country that refuses to fit neatly into a binary notion of colonizer/colonized.[8]

Kristeva identifies many instances where abjection dwells: shit, birth, death, and rotten food are all brought up within the first few pages of Powers of Horror as she outlines the concept.  For my purposes, however, I am most interested in thinking about the tropes of infection and rot, that which Kristeva terms “death infecting life.”  Like the tropicality that Arnold sees in colonial representations of the Caribbean, and later India, Kristeva’s ideas about infection and excessive fertility mark points where fecundity, supposedly a positive attribute, becomes not only negative but frightening and dangerous, a marker where too much life becomes a harbinger of death.  In Heaney’s early poems we see this concept recurring time and again, as Heaney’s presentations of the area in and around Mossbawn, the farm where he grew up, are tinged with infection and decay.

There is no shortage of rot, infection, horror, in Heaney’s work — particularly, his early and much-celebrated odes to the supposed simplicity of farm life are tinged with death and decay.  From rotten fruit to rat-infested wells to drowned kittens, Heaney’s Northern Irish country life is one where Order is constantly under siege by the creeping influences of excessive and deadly fecundity.  Heaney’s landscapes are always already at risk of infections — a status present in multiple strains of postcolonial literature from across the globe, including Asian, Native American, Caribbean, and African contexts.   This creeping abjection is a looming presence in Heaney’s early pastoral poems, tempering their so-called celebration of Irish landscape and offering a stark reminder of a history of colonial rule.  The abject nature of Heaney’s representations of Northern Ireland connects his work to that of other postcolonial writer’s “natural” landscapes—making the case for abject pastoralism as a trope of the postcolonial pastoral.

Fungus, Rats, and ‘Little Deaths’: Abjection on the Farm

In The Poetry of Resistance, Sydney Burris writes that “the pastoral’s ability to keep one eye trained on the realistic, particularized landscape and one on the idealized vista of a better world represented the genre’s most compelling feature” (Burris 1990: 7).  Burris presents a relevant claim not only because it’s an accurate observation of the role that the pastoral has played in the past but also because it speaks to the ways that the pastoral, and nature writing in general, has come to play an important role in postcolonial literature.[9]  A pastoral literature allows the author the chance to tell the story of a particular place and a particular geopolitical landscape, and at the same time to use that “place writing” as a chance to write into existence the idea of the nation again.  The author can make, through that “idealized vista of a better world,” use of the pastoral’s capacity for invention of place.

Historically, the pastoral has been not only about imagining a better rural world — or a return to a golden age — but also about using the rural to contrast and critique the urban.  In this sense, too, there is perhaps an obvious alignment between the pastoral and the goals of postcolonial writing: can we not see how the pastoral might also be about the space/place of the colony to contrast and critique the metropole?  Edouard Glissant has argued that because of the trauma of history inflicted upon landscape itself, the writing of postcolonial nations cannot and should not be interpreted as a pastoral writing but rather as a historical record of a “fight without witnesses” (Glissant 1990: 177).  However much I agree with Glissant about the trauma of conquests writ large across landscapes, the pastoral offers far more to postcolonial writers — and postcolonial ecocriticism — than he suggests.  In allowing writers simultaneously to tell the “truth” of a locality and at the same time look back to an idealized pre-colonial “golden age” (and thus imagine a future), the pastoral allows just such acts of imagination and reclamation that postcolonial theorists such as Said, who writes in Culture and Imperialism that “[the] land is recoverable at first only through imagination,” have advocated as integral to the postcolonial project (Glissant 1990: 177).[10]  Additionally, the pastoral’s long history of using the rural as a seat from which to critique, and indeed fully see, the urban offers fruitful opportunities for critiquing the metropole from the former colony.   Finally, there is something piquantly pleasing about using the pastoral, a form that has, since at least the seventeenth century, been so thoroughly Anglicized, to write against empire.

This idea of using the pastoral as a platform from which to write into existence an idealized, imagined nation does, of course, open itself to the charge of romanticization — either of the romanticized idea of a return to a “pure” pre-colonial past, or the fetishizing of the land itself.  This danger may be particularly present for Ireland, in fact, as Eoin Flannery has noted: “As a consequence of its peripheral location within Europe and its status as a Celtic outreach of British colonialism, Ireland has historically been entrapped within vocabularies of myth and romance” (Flannery 2010: 87).  Seamus Deane has written, similarly, that “the Irish landscape, whether in the form of the savage sublime, the picturesque, or the straightforwardly scenic,” has been presented in such as a way as to remove “the traces of a disastrous history” and instead make Ireland fit for public tourist consumption (Deane 1994a: 148).[11]  By marrying the pastoral to the abject, however, the pastoral is able to sidestep such mythic and romantic connotations and instead present an opportunity for not only critique but also subversion — rendering unstable the “easy” binaries of gender and empire.

In “Blackberry Picking,” Heaney uses a pastoral splendour that is tempered by the fearful reality of nature to illustrate that the truth that the line between life and death, between ripe and rotten is so perilously tenuous.  A similar offering, also from Death of a Naturalist, finds another of Heaney’s child narrators grappling with the narrow gap between life and death.  In “The Early Purges,” however, death is not the inevitable and natural end to a cycle but something far more frightening for its purposefulness.  “The Early Purges” begins with the narrator proclaiming, “I was six when I first saw kittens drown. / Dan Taggart pitched them, ‘the scraggy wee shits’ / into a bucket” (Heaney 1999b:13).  The young narrator watches as Taggart drowns the kittens, matter-of-factly remarking that it’s “better” for them this way.  Taggart is nearly a textbook example of how the antipastoral has played out in Irish literature, part of a line from Synge’s Playboy of the Western World to Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger and performing what Declan Kiberd has called “the more radical sort [of pastoral], in which a real peasantry may be depicted as having qualities peculiar to aristocrats” (Kiberd 2002:156).   Indeed, Taggart is depicted in the poem as being misunderstood by outsiders and “town people.”  When the job is done, Taggart plucks the kittens from the bucket and tosses them aside, “glossy and dead” (Heaney 1999b:13).  The dead kittens are frightening enough, but they are not the only animals that die under Dan Taggart’s business-like hands:

Suddenly frightened, for days I sadly hung

Round the yard, watching the three soggy remains

Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung

Until I forgot them.  But the fear came back

When Dan trapped big rats, snared rabbits, shot crows,

Or, with a sickening tug, pulled old hens’ necks. (13)

Although he is frightened, the narrator confesses that he is surrounded by the “little deaths” of a functioning farm — rabbits and crows hunted, chickens butchered, rats trapped.  It is, however, somewhat difficult to square the dead crows, rabbits, chickens, with the drowned kittens; presumably, rats wreak havoc in a barn, rabbits and chickens serve as meals, and crows, if not eaten, at least must be exterminated before they do damage to crops.  Kittens, however, are little more than domestic pets.  Perhaps, if we are being generous, we might argue that they keep down rodent populations on a farm.  It is more likely, however, that they are simply more mouths to feed.  Their death is frightening, part and parcel of a masculine rural world where fertile excesses must be carefully regulated, and when the narrator encounters other acts of violence he is reminded of their “dead and glossy” bodies.  Ultimately, though, their drowning is a practice which Heaney’s narrator accepts:

Still, living displaces false sentiments

And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown

I just shrug, ‘Bloody pups.’  It makes sense:

‘Prevention of cruelty’ talks cuts ice in town

Where they consider death unnatural

But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down. (Heaney 1999b: 13)

The narrator comes to accept, even defend, such a practice, and the pastoral becomes the political quite quickly in the last few lines of the poem, as the practicalities of the rural are contrasted to the naïve beliefs of those who dwell in “town,” where they have the privilege of taking the high road, arguing about cruelty and rights when, the narrator implies, rural life provides no such opportunity for gentleness or posturing. Outsiders do not and will not understand these rural cruelties, Heaney’s narrator suggests.  Like the creeping rot of blackberry season, so too on the farm can overabundance become a harbinger of death and decay.  The subtext of the poem is loud and clear: “Life here (on this farm, in Northern Ireland, in this place) is tinged with cruelty, with violence.  If you are not from here, you will not understand.”[12]  And, too, the function of masculinity looms large in the poem.  It is, in “Early Purges,” the job of men like Dan Taggart to control fertility.  It is unpleasant, certainly, and it is frightening to children, but it must be done.  Here, Heaney’s abject pastoral vision is brought to Order through the presence of patriarchal power.

In both “Blackberry Picking” and “The Early Purges,” Heaney writes through the voice of his child narrators about intimate knowledge of abjection; in both poems, the narrators know and accept the bitter reality of fearful fecundity, of a dangerous fertility that looms over the supposed idyll of Northern Ireland, whether it appears in the “stinking juice” of rotten blackberries or the “glossy and dead” bodies of unwanted kittens drowned at birth.  Heaney is not alone in his use of precocious young voices; child narrators have been a prevalent and established trope in postcolonial literature at large. Meenakshi Bharat describes the phenomenon thus: “In his traditional innocence, the non-judgmental child seems best equipped to mirror the complexity of the postcolonial in its totality without any censorship” (Bharat 2003: 4).  She continues, “It is this enlightened recognition of the child’s consciousness, which makes postcolonial novelists […] recognize the child as an important participant in, and commentator on the political scene” (Bharat 2003: 7).  In using his young narrators, Heaney is entering into a dialogue with many other postcolonial writers.  In terms of my argument here — that Heaney’s use of the pastoral is tinged with abjection — the presence of children in an abject landscape is particularly interesting, given that we might consider children to belong in an abject space, as well, being as they are not quite autonomous beings, not quite fully separated from (M)other.  Indeed, the child is always associated with female bodies in such a way that we might read the child itself as female.  Through the use of child speakers, Heaney is able to transcend his own position as male poet, keeper of the pen and The Word, and inhabit a space that is considerably more feminized.

Of Wells and Bogs: Abjection in the Broader Landscape

Although Heaney uses child narrators explicitly in the above poems, in others he purposely distances himself from the voice of the child, seeking instead to promote an adult self, one more removed from the fantastic or fearful musings of a child.  In “Personal Helicon,” also published in 1966’s Death of a Naturalist, Heaney writes again of the fearful, “scaresome” realities of rural life, but he also begins to distance his adult self, or at least an adult narrator’s voice, from the abjection of the natural world, seemingly needing to provide some distance between himself as poet, creator of structure and order both linguistic and imaginary, from the abject and frightening pastoral he repeatedly invokes.

“Personal Helicon” begins with Heaney exploring what will come to be characteristic of so much of his early work: the depths of Northern Irish soil.  In this case, he is expounding on his love of wells.  His narrator writes as an adult reminiscent of childhood, beginning with what is almost an endorsement of the fearful nature of a well — its gaping maw of darkness, its unknowability — and the subsequent attraction such a mysterious (and frankly vaginal) site holds:

As a child, they could not keep me from wells

And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.

I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells

Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.  (Heaney 1999b: 14)

The very elements of the well that most frighten (the looming darkness, the creeping rot) are also the elements that most draw the narrator to them, and he recalls the various encounters he’s had with such places, one “so deep you saw no reflection in it” and another one, more shallow, where “when you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch / a white face hovered over the bottom” (Heaney 1999b: 14).  It is unclear which well might be more frightening—one with no discernible bottom, or one with an inhabitant in its depths.   At any rate, Heaney’s fascination with the well seems a particularly Irish one, as “healing wells” have a long history in Ireland — a superstition the British tried unsuccessfully to suppress.  Heaney’s approach to the wells is typical of his abject pastoral vision; the Irish landscape is presented as both sacred and local, something to be celebrated, and at the same time fearful and potentially dangerous and uncontrollable — as it must have seemed to the British colonizers.

The “white face” is not the only time another body or voice is projected from within the depths of the well, and each description grows more abject, more tinged with horror:

Others had echoes, gave back your own call

With a clean new music in it.  And one

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection. (Heaney 1999b: 14)

Here, the wells that Heaney encounters embody Kristeva’s notion of the abject as that which breaks down the boundaries between Self and Other.  The well’s echoes of the narrator’s “own voice,” but with “clean new music” begs the question — is the voice an echo, or someone else entirely?  At what point does autonomy end, when the voice reflected back is not recognizably your own?  What power does the well hold within it?  Even more visceral is the image of the rat “slapping” across the narrator’s reflection, an infestation of vermin across the reflected Self, a violent interruption that Heaney terms as “scaresome”.

And yet, Heaney tells us, these wells are a source of endless fascination — a fascination which must be hidden, or redirected into an appropriate venue, in adulthood.  The last stanza concludes with a note of self-deprecation:

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity.  I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing. (Heaney 1999b: 14)

Here, Heaney lets poetry stand in as the appropriate adult substitute for the well, a pursuit where narcissism and navel-gazing is still allowed, even encouraged — where writing can provide the same pleasantly frightening thrills as the wells of childhood.  It is a very particular pastoral Heaney advocates here, a pastoral that allows him to “pry into roots” and “finger slime.”  The language becomes pointedly masculine and sexual, as the acts of well-gazing (and, necessarily to the metaphor, poetry-writing) are depicted as instances where one must “pry” and “finger” their way into the darkness.  It is not a stretch to read the well as a feminine space, part of the Irish landscape which, too, is always already figured as a woman.  In fact, there is a history of associating wells with female saints in Ireland.  In a nation named specifically after a female goddess (Eire), wells come to represent particularly feminine and sexual spaces.  Not incidentally, these spaces also become sites of tension, power, anxiety, and mystery — or abjection.

There is an aura of resistance, certainly, in the wildness of Heaney’s abject landscapes, particularly in the way that they stand apart from the properly British perspective of landscapes that are, quite literally, landscaped.  Referencing Eamon Slater’s study of the environmental destruction of Ireland via British colonization, James McElroy writes that the British picturesque in Ireland

registers a measure of detachment which benefits a landlord, outsider, or tourist class whereby the English and their surrogates are able to sanction a worldview devoid of wilderness, work and hardship so that colonial order (in miniature, the demesne) might serve as iconic representation; among other things, might minimize indigenous presence along with any native categories pertaining to Ireland’s ecological/natural space.  And yes, one of the most crucial of these eco-colonial spaces was the garden as situated inside Anglo-Ireland’s landed estates.  Indeed, it was through the medium of such elegant and expansive gardens, says Slater, that the Anglo-Irish were able to differentiate themselves from those scores of impoverished tenants whose very presence invoked powerful contrast: if nature within the perimeter walls of the great estates constituted what was civilized and “picturesque,” then that which lurked outside of the graduated borders of such reserves was deemed to be uncivilized wilderness. (McElroy 2011: 55-6)

Heaney’s pastoral poems take place in that “uncivilized wilderness,” the wild and untamed spaces where the colonial boot of England dare not tread, beyond the Big House and into the bog.  In situating the environment in such a way, through what is controlled and what is not controlled, abjection becomes a useful lens for reading Heaney’s pastoral spaces; they are, in frank terms, the wild feminine places where colonial order has been unable to take root.

These abject pastoral spaces offer both a parody and an affirmation of colonial tropes.  If the colonial view of an island is that of fearful tropicality, Heaney’s continued obsession with the most feminine attributes of Ireland’s landscape, its excess fecundity and creeping rot, its deep wells and grasping bogs, holes capable of drowning a man in their depths, offer both a space of potential resistance and a gendered ordering of the landscape that does more to uphold colonial views than combat them.  Heaney’s pastoral balances on a tenuous high-wire, doubly bound between a subversive embrace of the fearful feminine and a patriarchal excavation of it.  Such a reading of the depths of the Irish soil figures prominently, as well, in another of Heaney’s early poems that I wish to discuss: “The Tollund Man.”

“The Tollund Man,” published in 1972’s Wintering Out, marks one of Heaney’s first engagements with the “bog bodies,” of Ireland and Denmark.[13]  In North, published three years later in 1975, Heaney will write a sequence of poems centred on the uncannily well-preserved Bronze Age bodies that have been discovered in these bogs.[14]  It is in “The Tollund Man,” however, that Heaney begins writing about the bogs and the strange, strangely familiar content which they yield. “The Tollund Man” offers a significant link between Heaney’s early representations of what I have termed abject pastoralism and his work in North, where he, as many critics have argued, marks a turning point in his career —and invokes abjection in an extremely direct manner.

Abject imagery in “The Tollund Man” abounds, but in a very different way than it has appeared in the poems I have thus far termed “abject pastorals.”  In the earlier poems, Heaney plays with images of death and rot appearing, creeping, into an otherwise ideal, idyll landscape.  In “The Tollund Man,” the images of rot and decay become, for the first time, directly linked with gender: it is in “The Tollund Man” that the abject forces of nature, nature’s abject presence, is distinctly marked as a feminine power.  Nature/the bog/the landscape/Ireland is all encapsulated in “The Tollund Man” as “the goddess,” a being with whom Heaney both identifies and fears.  We see in Heaney’s goddess shades of Erich Neumann’s Great Mother archetype, a figure he identifies as common across disparate cultures.  Neumann identifies some versions of the Great Mother as the “Primordial Goddess,” a figure associated with both fertility and the landscape itself.  Neumann describes this goddess as “belong[ing] like a hill or mountain to the earth of which she is a part and which she embodies” (Neumann 1954: 98).  The goddess in “The Tollund Man,” like Neumann’s Primordial Goddess, is representative of both fertility and the land itself.

Heaney begins by narrating the journey he plans to make to see the Tollund Man, emphasizing the preserved nature of the body with its “peat-brown head,” the “mild pods of his eyelids,” and his “pointed skin cap” (62).  Exposure is the order of the day, as Heaney relays that the Tollund Man’s “last gruel of winter seeds” was still “caked in his stomach,” and he was “naked except for / the cap, noose, and gurdle” (Heaney 1999b: 62).  How the Tollund Man came to be preserved this way, held in the bog that has been both grave and womb for centuries, is the result of a woman, the narrator tells us:

Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him

And opened her fen,

Those dark juices working

Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turf-cutters’

Honeycombed workings.

Now his stained face

Reposes at Aarhus. (Heaney 1999b: 62)

The “goddess” is both a mythical being and the bog itself, an idea and a landscape, a giver of life in that her “dark juices” preserve the Tollund Man and gift him with a “saint’s kept body,” and a harbinger of death in that she trapped him, “tightened her torc on him.”  The goddess here is figured directly along Kristeva’s lines of the abject — a maternal and sexual figure, capable of both giving and taking life—a figure both sexual and violent in equal measure.

Despite the overt and powerful femininity of the bog, much of the scholarly conversation surrounding the bog poems, and particularly “The Tollund Man,” has had more to do with the notions of religious sacrifice and tribal affiliation, with national psyche and historical mining, than with either ecocritical or gendered readings.[15]  As Moynagh Sullivan archly notes, much of Heaney scholarship has regarded feminist readings of his work as “quite unrelated to Heaney as a poet” (Sullivan 2005: 452).  Rather, critical engagement has trended toward the personal as political; Eugene O’Brien writes that “digging becomes a metaphor of the probing of the unconscious, unspoken aspects of his nationalist psyche throughout the early works” (O’Brien 2002: 28).  Speaking of “The Tollund Man” particularly, O’Brien argues, “It is the realization of both the attraction and ultimate futility of the tribal religion of place that is enacted by this poem” (O’Brien 2002: 28).  These readings, largely psychoanalytic, leave out the reality of the bog as a physical piece of Irish landscape, one which has been both literally disfigured through colonization and metaphorically gendered as female. For O’Brien, and other critics, the focal point of the conversation has been place and community identity, leaving gender largely ignored — or simply commented upon in passing.  And, in fact, even when Seamus Deane explicitly mentions the role that gender plays in “The Tollund Man,” it is not in terms of how a dangerous femininity might offer powerful modes of resistance, but rather to comment that the bog poems offer Heaney a chance to reflect on one part of his nationalist psyche, that of the “slightly aggravated young Catholic male” (Deane 1977b: 66).   Scholarship has largely overlooked Heaney’s distinct awareness of this fearsome, powerful combination of sex and violence, life and death, as he continues in the second half of the poem:

I could risk blasphemy,

Consecrate the cauldron bog

Our holy ground and pray

Him to germinate

The scattered, ambushed

Flesh of labourers,

Stockinged corpses

Laid out in the farmyards (62-63)

The Tollund Man, as “bridegroom to the goddess,” might take on some of her powers to give and take life, Heaney suggests; the Tollund Man might “make germinate” the dead, upset the boundary between the living and the deceased.

In most critical readings, Heaney’s preoccupation with digging, with wells, with what can be found under the surface of the earth, is read in terms of either the connections Heaney draws between the historical and archaeological detritus beneath the soil and the current political tensions above it, or, less commonly, as a kind of phallic penetration of the earth itself.[16]  Terry Gifford’s chapter on Heaney’s nature poems that appears in Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry performs just such a reading. Gifford comments of “The Tollund Man”: “Through the course of the poem Heaney comes to identify with this bridegroom [the Tollund Man].  An imaginative exploration of forces at work in the history and bogs of Jutland … has found a connection with the Six Counties and a familiar discomfort for the writer by the end of the poem” (Gifford 1995: 95).  Gifford’s reading of “The Tollund Man” is typical of the critical reception of Heaney’s so-called nature poems; that is, much is made of the metaphors linking the nature landscape and the political tensions of the times.  And, of course, it is a valid and necessary reading — to ignore the connections between the unearthed past and the above-earth present would be to miss the mark of the poem altogether.  However, such a reading leaves gender unconsidered or at least overlooked.

To be fair to Gifford, he does raise the question of gender, at least spectrally, noting, “What, in the tribal context that Heaney finds himself, are the implications of his connectedness with nature in its violent as well as fertile forces?”   (Gifford 1995: 95-9).  For Gifford, Heaney’s connectedness with violent and fertile nature is what allows him to personify the voice of “the goddess” in later poems (particularly the bog poems of North).  However, Heaney’s acknowledgment, even fascination, with both the violence and fecundity of “nature” is at bottom a fascination with that fearful feminine, the abject being—and a natural progression in his “nature poems” from the abject pastoral of early poems like “Blackberry Picking” and “Early Purges,” to the more gendered abjection of poems like “Personal Helicon” and “The Tollund Man,” where the fearful femininity of nature is not merely hinted at through the presence of rot and infestation but directly invoked through images of womb-like wells and bogs that operate as both creative and destructive forces.

Much has been made of the last stanza of “The Tollund Man,” when Heaney writes:

Out there in Jutland

In the old man-killing parishes

I will feel lost,

Unhappy and at home. (Heaney 1999b: 63)

Tribal tensions, historic animosity and political discord, are analogous to the political tensions of the day, and Heaney’s concluding stanza offers a bittersweet acknowledgement of that metaphor.  Heaney’s violently familiar bogs speak to his place in a line of Irish poets whose ecological representations of Ireland have been tinged with violent and deathly imagery.  For example, Heaney’s violent landscapes owe much to Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger (1942).  McElroy has raised cogent points about how violence and death in the The Great Hunger should be read as not simply “dark, dismal, and unlush,” but that “it would be much more productive to recognize what Kavanagh makes possible in such confined topographic spaces; recognize that such entries bear witness to the woundedness of a land which contains, inside its unresuscitated ancestral discourse, the ecological legacies of what came before, during, and after ‘the Penal days’” (McElroy 2011: 59).  Heaney’s bogs, it seems, offer similarly “confined topographical spaces,” which do similar work—and, too, which might benefit from the sort of careful, ecologically cognizant reading that McElroy espouses for Kavanagh.

However, such an awareness of “ecological legacies” might be taken one step further in reading Heaney’s landscape.  Particularly, I wonder if, perhaps, not enough has been made of the fact that parishes are not described as murderous, or violent, or dangerous, but “man-killing.”  Directly gendered, the parishes themselves, and their bogs and earth goddesses, are invoked as man-killers — landscapes that are abject by their very nature.  And Heaney, recognizing the uncanny quality of the abject, is both “lost” and “at home” in such a space, both heimlich and unheimlich — both bridegroom and victim to the goddess.  It is this very “in-between-ness,” neither lost nor found, fertile nor deadly, that marks the power of abject spaces—and offers one way of reasoning why abjection might be so prevalent in postcolonial pastoral writing, as I have been at pains to suggest here.


In these early poems, Heaney offers a pastoral vision of Northern Ireland that belies the “salt-of-the-earth” notions that so often are attributed to Heaney.  Rather, Heaney’s early pastoral poems suggest a much more complicated, darker relationship to nature and landscape.  In these poems and their creeping, often dangerous fertility and infection, we see Heaney utilizing an abject pastoral, one that puts into conversation the complexity of Ireland’s colonial past (and present) and the role that gender has so often played in Irish poetry.  Identifying this abjection offers a way to understand Heaney as part of a postcolonial pastoral tradition, his work both pushing against and informed by the gender and geopolitics of Northern Ireland.

[1] Which we might define as that version of the pastoral which, rather than idealizing rural life, seeks to present the reality of rural life and its connection to human labour.  In Heaney’s work, certainly, we encounter a pastoral complicated by the realities of contemporary life.

[2] See Sidney Burris, Oona Frawley, and Henry Hart for critical conversations regarding Heaney’s fruitful, complicated relationship to the pastoral.

[3] Indeed, abjection plays a key role in my reading of Heaney’s 1975 collection, North. In an article published in CJIS in 2016, I argue that the bog poems of North are located in fundamentally abject spaces, spaces which come to figure as the onus for political resistance.

[4] The obvious comparison might be toward the Hindu goddess Kali—the female aspect of god, whose name literally means “the black one.”  However fearsome she might be, Kali is also a maternal figure.  In fact, some legends have her breastfeeding an infant Shiva on the battlefield.

[5] The desire to read Heaney as this salt-of-the-earth figure may stem in large part from Heaney’s own representations of his life.  Neil Corcoran describes Heaney’s use of childhood in unequivocal terms: “Everything Heaney has himself written about his childhood reinforces the sense of intimate domestic warmth and affection as its prevailing atmosphere” (Corcoran 1998: 235).  Corcoran even includes a passage quoting Heaney’s wife, Marie: “His family life was utterly together, like an egg contained within the shell, without any quality of otherness, without the sense of loss that this otherness brings” (Corcoran 1998: 235).

[6] Bluebeard is a particularly fraught image, for Bluebeard’s palms were sticky not with juice but blood.  In the French folktale, Bluebeard is a nobleman known for murdering his wives.  When his most recent marital acquisition is told to avoid a particular room in his castle, she is overcome with curiosity and immediately crosses the forbidden threshold to discover the hanging, bloody bodies of Bluebeard’s murdered wives.  Bluebeard becomes aware of her disobedience by a magical, unwashable bloodstain that appears on his room key—a stain that cannot be washed away to hide the wife’s guilt.  The reference to Bluebeard is a telling choice—Bluebeard’s narrative relies not simply on a violent husband but on a malign presence (in the form of the wives’ bodies, hung up for posterity).  Just as the bloodstain in Bluebeard’s story cannot be washed away, so too the children of “Blackberry Picking” cannot wash clean their own hands.

[7]For a thorough look at the notions of Irish stereotypes and their entrée into popular culture, Michael de Nie’s The Eternal Paddy: Irish Identity and the British Press (1798-1882) (2004) offers a wealth of information.

[8] And, of course, this simple binary cannot accurately depict the situation of any colonial or postcolonial situation; however, through issues of demographics, proximity, and collusion with the Crown, Ireland occupies a place in colonial history that has long been muddied.

[9] Burris’s commentary is part of his larger argument about the political and even radical presence of the pastoral in Heaney’s work.

[10] To clarify: I am not advocating that the usefulness of the pastoral for postcolonial writers is dependent upon an idealized return to a pre-colonial (and thus unreachable, unknowable) past.  Rather, it is in the imaginative use of such a golden age within the conventions of the pastoral in order to also “write into being” a new present.

[11] The success of Ireland’s commodification as an island of magic and romance, folklore and whimsy, can be experienced on nearly a global level.  The wild success of cultural commodities such as Michael Flatley’s Riverdance or the proliferation of St. Patrick’s Day, Guinness, and other Irish exports speaks to the romantic branding of Ireland as not merely a nation but an idea, a primitive throwback able to capitalize on its own past.

[12] Heaney’s use of the term “pests” suggests a channelling of colonialism, as well; during Cromwell’s siege of Drogheda, he made the infamous, apocryphal call for the extermination of everyone, including women and children, because “nits make lice.”

[13] The other early mention of the bogs appears in the poem “Bogland,” published in Door into the Dark (1969).  I do not give it full treatment here because it, unlike the later poems from “The Tollund Man” on, is primarily concerned with the bog itself, rather than the bodies that are pulled from it.  In fact, “Bogland” mentions no human remains at all, focusing instead on the “great Irish elk” which was preserved in the bog’s “bottomless” depths.

[14] Heaney took as his source material for these poems P.V. Glob’s The Bog People, which features photographs of the bodies.

[15] There are some notable exceptions to this rule, including works by Moynagh Sullivan and Patricia Coughlin.

[16]  See Sabina Muller, Through the Mythographer’s Eye: Myth and Legend in the Works of Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland (2005).

Works Cited

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Bharat, Meenakshi. (2003).  The Ultimate Colony: The Child in Postcolonial Fiction.  New Delhi: Allied.

Burris, Sidney.  (1990). The Poetry of Resistance:  Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition.  Columbus: Ohio University Pres.

Corcoran, Neil. (1998 [1986]).  The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Critical Study.  London: Faber, 1998.

Deane, Seamus. (1994a).  A Short History of Irish Literature.  South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press.

______. (1977b).  “‘Unhappy and at home’: Seamus Deane Interviews Seamus Heaney.”  The Crane Bag 1 (1): 66-72.

Flannery, Eoin. (2010). “Ireland of the Welcomes: Colonialism, Tourism, and the Irish Landscape.”  Out of the Earth: Ecocritical Readings of Irish Texts, edited by Christine Cusick.  Cork: Cork University Press.

Gifford, Terry. (1995). Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Glissant, Edouard. (1990). Poetics of Relations.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Heaney, Seamus.(1999a). Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996.  New York: Farrar.

______. (1980b).  Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978.  New York: Faber.

Kiberd, Declan. (2002). Irish Classics.  Boston: Harvard University Press.

Kristeva, Julia. (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.  New York: Columbia University Press.

McElroy, James. (2011). “Ecocriticism of Irish Poetry: A Preliminary Outline.”  Estudios Irlandeses 6: 54-69.

Neumann, Erich.  (1954). The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype.  New York: Pantheon.

O’Brien, Eugene. (2002). Creating Irelands of the Mind.  Dublin: Liffey.

Potts, Donna. (2011). Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Sullivan, Moynagh. (2005). “The Treachery of Wetness: Irish Studies, Seamus Heaney, and the Politics of Partuition.” Irish Studies Review 13 (4): 453-68.

| Received: 21-06-2022 | Last Version: 13-12-2022 | Articles, Issue 18