Channeling the Great Mother: Gender Dualism in Heaney’s “Bog Queen”
by Christine Hoff Kraemer
Seamus Heaney is
fascinated with the Irish bogs. Early in his career, he encountered
archaeologist P.V. Glob’s The Bog People
– a study of European Iron Age culture, which has been preserved in the
form of bodies (many of them ritually sacrificed). Most of Glob’s bog people were
exhumed from Danish bogs, but others have been found since in Ireland. Glob’s
work made a deep impression on the poet, and when Heaney combined its imagery
with the national iconography of Ireland, the resulting ferment produced the
poet’s rich mythology of a nurturing-and-devouring Earth Mother goddess. Though
there is a significant critical literature treating Heaney’s bog poems, “Bog
Queen” is amongst the lesser-known. The poem depicts the long rest of a
mummified female corpse whose clothing and jewelry seem to indicate high
status, her rude discovery by a turfcutter, and her potentially vengeful
resurrection. Though superficially the poem might be situated within the genre
of gothic horror, Heaney encodes multiple layers of meaning in the poem by
associating the Bog Queen with the body of the earth itself. In the context of
his other bog poems, “Bog Queen” also reflects
The first line of the poem suggests that the Bog Queen will rise, both by the choice of the first-person voice, implying her continuing consciousness, and the predatory words “I lay waiting” – though waiting for what, we do not yet know. The following stanzas describe the complex, organic process of her body’s decay and preservation in the bog, a process that brings her into communion with the earth’s natural processes. “My body was braille / for the creeping influences;” she says, suggesting that her body was a kind of text read by touch, understood and partially consumed by the sun and the “seeps of winter.” To the activity of winter she applies the term “digested,” a word that invokes both the process of decay and that of summarizing a text, as in literary “digests.” The roots that push into her body, however, are “illiterate,” and “ponder and die” in its hollows – unable to read her meaning. She follows this image with one of her brain “fermenting underground / dreams of Baltic amber” – once again combining images of an organic process with those of a mental one. Her brain may literally be transforming (“fermenting”) into a fossilized material (“amber”), but this image also suggests something less tangible, the slow production of dreams from a complex and organic “ferment” of the mind.
identifies the Bog Queen more explicitly with the earth itself in the following
three stanzas, in which the gemstones of her crown are compared to “the
bearings of history,” her sash to “a black glacier,” and her fine clothing to
sediment dropped by glaciers on the hills of her breasts. The cold is “like the nuzzle of fjords / at my thighs—” as if her legs were
the land. The turfcutter’s inadvertent violation, his spade cutting through her
hair and uncovering her body, takes on an additional resonance – it is the
earth, or perhaps
mummified queen is both the sleeping earth and the spirit of
Heaney’s Bog Queen is an example of the magna mater, or Great Mother archetype discussed in Jung’s psychoanalysis – the giver of life and death, closely associated with the body of the earth, the turning of the seasons, the unconscious, intuition, and the emotions. Heaney betrays his Jungian leanings when he says of his writing process, “I think the process is a kind of somnambulist encounter between masculine will and intelligence and feminine clusters of image and emotion” (Green, 151). Heaney is a product of the Western tradition that divides the world into strict dichotomies: male/female, light/dark, intellect/emotion. This leads critic Patricia Coughlan to attack Heaney in an essay comparing his work with that of John Montague. Accusing Heaney of portraying the feminine not as an autonomous and independent Other, but merely as the ground against which the male self is defined, she writes:
So must we not conclude that the poetry of Montague and Heaney as a whole is insistently and damagingly gendered? Its masculine personae, whether in the narrative of personal identity, or that of nationality, must, it seems, possess or be possessed by a counter-force personified as feminine: an encounter of the genders as of aliens – dog eat dog, possess or be swallowed up – is forever occurring, even within and beneath politics. (200)
Yet “Bog Queen” – which Coughlan mentions only in passing as an “erotic disrobing narrative” (190), though she takes the title of her essay from it – belies this dismissive evaluation of Heaney’s representations of the feminine. “Bog Queen” is explicitly not a poem where the feminine is imagined only in contrast to a speaker’s masculine persona; instead, Heaney attempts to identify with this earthy, female, intuitive Other, in the process giving her the voice of an independent self. Carlanda Green, who is far more sympathetic to Heaney’s efforts to portray the feminine, suggests an explanation for Heaney’s feminine choice of persona in “Bog Queen” when she writes of the feminine principle, “[The female’s] actions are often intuitive; she senses, feels things to a greater degree than man so that the felt experience is commonplace with her. Because he often cannot understand how she knows what she knows, man, chiefly rational, finds her mysterious and often mistrusts her” (152). Although both Heaney and Green are in danger of essentializing the sexes through their rigid gendering of personality characteristics, it is clear that Heaney is not guilty of the sin of which Coughlan accuses him. Instead, by taking on a female persona in “Bog Queen” the poet experiments with an alternative way of knowing and perceiving, one that – perhaps because of his tendency to compartmentalize the genders – may only be accessible to him through that method.
This technique is similar to that used in W.B. Yeats’ “Crazy Jane” poems, in which the poet employs an earthy, older woman to articulate risqué sentiments (sentiments with which the poet clearly agrees). As in “Bog Queen,” a dualistic portrayal of gender is used in “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” – passionate Jane is contrasted with the stiff and prudish male bishop, who rejects sensuality because he associates it with dirt and filth. Crazy Jane, however, understands that “fair needs foul”; she acknowledges duality but insists that both sides of a pair are necessary for wholeness. Yeats is able to make this point about the necessary interdependence of opposites much more strongly by taking on and legitimizing the voice of the often-rejected Other, that of a sensual, earthy, older woman. In a culture that had constructed the genders so rigidly, it is surprising and liberating for a male poet to demonstrate a “feminine” way of knowing through his art, one that allows him to celebrate the goodness and necessity of sensuality and to articulate its equal importance with the spiritual.
choice to write “Bog Queen” from a first-person perspective similarly gives the
reader direct access to the powerful, organic, feminine consciousness that
Heaney has previously approached as a beloved and feared Other. Rather than
merely being in relationship with Mother Earth, we are asked to fully
participate in the turning of the seasons and the process of decay and rebirth;
rather than speaking of wounded
On the surface, “Bog Queen” may seem to reinforce Heaney’s Jungian tendency to essentialize the sexes as, like his other bog poems, it clusters intuition, sensuality, and an earthy kind of regenerative power with femininity. Both “Bog Queen” and “Crazy Jane,” however, simultaneously problematize this dualism even as they use it. Heaney and Yeats have chosen female speakers to manifest qualities of sensuality, emotion, intuition, and physicality that Western tradition categorizes as strictly feminine, but the fact that they were able to create these compelling female speakers suggests that the poets were not cut off from these qualities after all – and indeed, that these qualities are neither masculine nor feminine but instead essentially human. Though Heaney may see physicality, intuition, and emotion as feminine, he remains a male poet even as he creates these earthy, organic works of art. “Bog Queen” may embrace traditional Western gender dualism, but it also demonstrates its falseness by allowing the Great Mother to speak with Heaney’s mouth. In this aspect, “Bog Queen” is an almost quintessential example of a modern work – it is tense with seeming opposites that, when examined more closely, resolve themselves into a whole.
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Copyright (c) 2003 by Christine Hoff Kraemer