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"Bog Queen" by Seamus Heaney
who veiled me again
and packed coomb softly
Till a peer’s wife bribed him.
The plait of my hair
a slimy birth-cord
of bog, had been cut
And I rose from the dark,
The violent exploitation of Ireland caused by England during The Troubles is the main premise within Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Bog Queen”. The poem wrestles with resistance and historical prejudice. Heaney elicits visceral images depicting the resurrection of an ornately dressed female bog body (the jewels insinuate that she was of great wealth).
Prior to the passage indicated above, the poem elaborately describes the physical body of the bog woman (from the voice of the bog queen) being uncovered by the turfcutter who pays his respects to the woman after this abrupt discovery. However, through a bribe he betrays the bog queen, leaving her to rise and seek vengeance on those who have betrayed her in the past.
The violent tone married with the language signify that the bog queen represents Ireland. Furthermore, the prior mistreatment by England (and betrayal by some Irishmen) serves as the beginning of the rise of the Irish to regain equality. Through tone, and symbolic language, Seamus Heaney’s poem “Bog Queen” uses the exploitation of Ireland to argue that historical prejudice serves as the stepping-stone for resistance of a culture against external forces.
While the tone in the first three-quarters of “Bog Queen” is empathetic, an abrupt shift to a violent tone occurs between stanza twelve and thirteen. For example, the turfcutter, “…packed coomb softly” this illustrates that the man attempts to protect her by placing her back in the bog after being stripped of her belongings (Heaney line 46). He gently reburies her. Since the bog woman stands for Ireland, a country that was culturally assaulted by England this line empathizes with the turbulent treatment of the bog woman by trying to repair the damage through replacing her in her original state.
However, the tone shifts with, “Till a peer’s wife bribed him,” and the tone becomes that of betrayal as the bog woman details her hair being “cut” and taken from her without permission (49 and 52). This prejudice against the bog woman after the turfcutter had respected her sparks a violent vengeance in the bog woman/Ireland as she “rose from the dark” in fervor to resist this act of violence against her (53). This act of exploitation against the bog woman forces her up to revolt against the men and women who seek to strip her of her hair, which very much symbolizes her connection to her homeland, as it was the anchor keeping her in the land. Arguably, the empathetic tone shifts to a violent one as the bog woman was nearly at rest once again when somebody else chose to cut her from the characteristics that identify her as the bog queen.
The symbolic language within “Bog Queen” aids the transition from the empathetic to violent tone, as well as bears striking connotations that lend to the theme of resistance against historical prejudice. The diction in “Bog Queen” is two-fold: the connotation of the nouns and the selection of verbs to describe the action. First, the nouns are “coomb” (46), “peer’s wife” (49), “plait” (50), and “birth-cord” (51). The word coomb connotes the chalk downs of Ireland, which is a physical characteristic of the land. To pack the bog woman in a physical structure of Ireland suggests that she is a part of the land and removing her from it would sever her from her past. Thus, the diction lends to the empathetic tone and it argues that the turfcutter is aware that this woman has a nation and a history that exists regardless of the uncovering of her body. Heaney situates that body in her physical history in order to give rise to resistance as she is severed from her homeland in the violent cutting of her hair.
Moreover, the term “peer’s wife” suggests that the turfcutter was sexually bribed in order to cut the “plait” from the bog woman. Since peer is equivalent to friend, it works well with the concept of manipulating relations in order to achieve a goal, as the English did with Ireland’s people during the national conflicts. This manipulation raises the tone of betrayal as the reader witnesses the bog queen’s “plait”, an intertwining braid of hair being cut from her body and separating her from the past prejudices committed against her. Furthermore, the noun, “birth-cord” solidifies the natural connection between the woman and her motherland. Her hair serves has the umbilical cord between her and her land.
This sparks the bog woman to rise from the bog and seek vengeance on those who have attempted to separate her from her land and her culture. Not only does the cutting of the braid signify historical prejudice against the woman/Ireland, but also it allows the woman/Ireland to stand up and resist any further exploitation of the land that is home.
As the nouns provide insight to the theme by adding to the tone of the poem, the action verbs, “veiled” (45) and “bribed” (49) create the violent change from the bog woman passively lying in the land to the active resistance against those who have attempted to keep her oppressed. The term “veiled” is strong in that the bog woman was brought up from the bog, her valuables were taken, and then those who brought her to the surface put her back in the bog and “veiled” her from the world. Her eyes are covered and she cannot fight for her own rising from the dark. The term “veiled” (45) in this line sounds similar to the cliché “pull the wool over your eyes” in that external forces are hiding the truths of the exploitation from the bog queen. The word symbolizes those who are veiling the woman, as well as those who are choosing to put a veil over their own eyes in order to avoid seeing the destruction on their country and their people. The connotation of “veiled” segues into “bribed”, another manipulative verb within stanzas twelve and thirteen.
The verb “bribed” (49) suggests that there is a value threshold for the turfcutter to betray his bog queen. In this line, a woman seduces him with a bribe (money or sex) in order to get a hold of the powerful braid that connects the bog woman to the boglands. To be bribed suggests a weakness within the framework of the people of the land in that they are not strong enough to support their own land; however this demonstrates that Ireland’s historical past (or any historical prejudice) impacts the country’s ability to stand up to those that have taken advantage of the people. However, this bribe is the mechanism that enables the land to regain itself. By succumbing to the bribe, the turfcutter releases the “veiled” queen, which indirectly leads to her “[rise] from the dark” (51). These final lines are a warning of resistance should any person attempt to veil the bog queen or her people in the future.
The theme of historical prejudice on a people or a land and the rise of a resistance are strong throughout the “Bog Queen” as Heaney examines the impacts of the conflicts in Ireland regarding the position of Northern Ireland. In “Bog Queen”, the bog woman serves as the physical and cultural land that has been exploited by England. Moreover, the violent tone and symbolic language suggest a political warning to those who have violated the bog queen’s land in the past.
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