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Analysis of the Poem "Bogland" by Seamus Heaney

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney and a Summary Analysis of “Bogland”

"Bogland" is one of many poems Heaney composed on the subject of Irish identity and its relation to the past. It was written in the 1960s and was the last poem in his second book Door into the Dark, published in 1969.

Heaney turns the peat bog into a metaphor for memory and feeling, a place where identity is buried and preserved. The speaker is not personally involved in this poem— there is no first person I—but rather takes an overview of the land and the history.

This reflects what Heaney himself said when thinking about poetry and its role in helping understand identity:

."..poetry as a point of entry into the buried life of the feelings or as a point of exit for it..."

The poem with its narrow stanza on stanza form mirrors the bog itself, layer upon layer of peat, layers of language, both descriptive and figurative. And Heaney gets to include his favourite word 'dig' synonymous with the peat bog spade once commonly used in Ireland.

So "Bogland" is a poem of contrast and comparison, initially between the North American plain with its vastness and the enclosed narrowness of the Irish bog. It's as if the speaker is attempting to clarify the landscape he loves and knows by acknowledging the past, how the bog preserves things and memory, and how mythology still clings to the present.

This poem has many typical Heaney lines, full of short, hard consonants, long vowels, strong assonance (Butter sunk under) and a rich mix of phonetics.


for T.P.Flanagan

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

Analysis of "Bogland" Stanza-By-Stanza

First Stanza

In the first quatrain, the speaker is initially comparing the bog landscape to that of North America—with its vast plains—which is said 'To slice a big sun' when the sun is setting and disappears halfway down, hence it appears sliced, an active verb.

In Ireland there is always something getting in the way, the horizon wins because it is always trespassing into vision.

Second Stanza

A comma ends the first stanza so the pause is not so pronounced as the reader moves on. The eye is also 'wooed' sort of seduced or enticed to look for something closer, such as a tarn (small lake).

Here Heaney uses the term cyclops' eye for the small lake, a nod to Greek mythology and the one-eyed creature called Cyclops.

And the speaker becomes a spokesperson for the island of Ireland—Our unfenced country—again compared to the American plains which are also unfenced and open.

The bogland is ongoing crusty country.

Third Stanza

Many things end up buried in the peat bog including the Great Irish Elk, a creature that lived thousands of years ago (Megaloceros giganteus) which had huge antlers and is now in a museum.

The speaker uses the phrase crate full of air referring to the exhibit, suggesting that it's not worth seeing, and of little value?

Fourth Stanza

Next in line comes butter, preserved in the peat for a hundred years, those repeated u vowels typically low and flat. Butter is homely, locally produced and represents both farming community and a sense of place. The bog keeps it, acting like a time capsule.

The very ground is black butter, a metaphor for the soft, perhaps deceptive lifestyles led by the people.

Fifth Stanza

Enjambment leads straight into the fifth stanza, the ground as black butter so giving when trod on. It will take a long time to harden and become coal—it'll be millions of years—but there'll be nobody around to dig it out.

Sixth and Seventh Stanzas

The bog is so wet fir tree remnants become pulp. And still, it is worked by those who sense new things arising from it—but the island has such a long history of invasion and settlement, it's as if there is no pristine land left.

But they're so close to the influential Atlantic too, the bog holes could be seepage. And some of the bog water is so black it could be bottomless. The Irish can never get to the bottom of their past?

"Bogland" Literary/Poetic Device And Internal Rhyme

"Bogland" is a free verse poem, there is no set rhyme scheme and the metre (meter in American English) varies from line to line, despite the rough eight syllable/five syllable alternation.


When two or more words are close together and begin with the same consonant. For example:

sights of the sun


When two or more words close together in a line have similar-sounding vowels:

Butter sunk under


When a line is paused midway by punctuation:

Of great firs, soft as pulp.


When a line runs on into the next with no pause, maintaining the sense as the reader progresses:

They've taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

Out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.

Internal Rhyme

There are no full end rhymes but inside the poem, there are quite a few rhyming echoes, such as:

slice/eye/horizon...unfenced country/crusting/sun...Great/crate...Butter sunk under/hundred/butter


The ground itself is kind, black butter


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2020 Andrew Spacey


Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on January 24, 2020:

I love this poem and it means even more to me after reading your wonderful analysis. I'll be back for another visit and thank you Andrew.

Lorna Lamon on January 22, 2020:

An interesting and informative analysis Andrew. I can remember the smell of a peat fire on a winter's day. Now the bogs are being preserved as part of climate change which is a good idea. An enjoyable read - thank you for sharing.