The Geological Memory of Seamus Heaney’s Poetry

by Victoria Provost

In the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street, there is a wing that doubles as a tomb. As one walks through the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibition gallery, one is presented with several cylindrical cubicles; if one dares to venture into the inconspicuous openings to these partitions, one may behold the former shells of four souls that lay undisturbed for centuries under the peat fields of Ireland before they were discovered and put on display. The bog bodies are crumpled pieces of dark skin and sinew pulled tightly over disarrayed portions of skeletons, with little more than occasional tufts of hair or the distorted relief of a face to indicate their former humanity. They are not as infamous as their Egyptian cousins. Far from inspiring horror movie franchises, the bog bodies are so primeval that they more closely resemble the turf fields they were extracted from than people; they are more like bog than body. However, their remains inspired the renowned poet Seamus Heaney, who uses the bog bodies in his work as a vehicle to write about the geographic, sociological, and political history of Ireland. In Seamus Heaney’s poems “Bog Queen” and “Punishment,” the deceased subjects of the poems help to illustrate the unique natural geography of Ireland as well as the country’s complex relationship to its turbulent history. 

“I lay waiting,” begins Heaney’s poem “Bog Queen” (1). This opening line is a strong and sinister start—the speaker is not merely passively waiting and hoping that someone will uncover her body, but she is lying in wait as a predator lies in wait for its prey. The bog woman’s first person voice, regardless of the activity or passivity of her action, gives us our first personification of the speaker, and in doing so makes her corpse come alive in her narration. We feel her quiet agency. Her skull “hibernates”—a word that does not suggest the peaceful slumber of the dead, but a sense of anticipation for the day she may finally awaken. The bog queen waits “between turf-face and demesne wall / between heathery levels and glass-toothed stone,” no longer herself living, but still a part of the living environment of the bog (2-3). Bogs develop over time periods spanning millennia; they form when lakes slowly fill with plant debris. Similarly, Ireland slowly formed into a sovereign nation after much bloodshed and time. Ireland’s political landscape formed from people’s gory debris from civil wars and insurrections like the bogs formed from plant debris. Seamus Henry draws this connection in “Bog Queen” as the Bog Queen, forever waiting in her anaerobic grave, represents this staid aesthetic in the midst of the unstable moral climate. She is dead, yet alive in her surroundings and her role in her biome, just as the casualties of Irish history are gone, but kept close and relevant in the ever-present weight of memory. Specific memories may not be inherited, but trauma may be, whether consciously or no; it is in this unconscious national memory that the Bog Queen lies in wait. 

The speaker of “Bog Queen” is a ghostly presence in the bogland; the remnants of her existence now evident in the bog cotton and heather, “creeping influences” that grow in nutrients that her decomposing body contributes to the biosphere. One wonders how many hundreds of years of “dawn suns groped” over the bog queen’s head have passed, and how many “seeps of winter” have had a hand in in the digestion of her body (7, 10). Heaney brutally indicates the enormity of the passage of time in only the first few stanzas through his diction. He employs descriptions of nature paired with metaphors of the bog queen’s steady loss of the accoutrements of her nobility as the quagmire swallows her. The queen’s diadem grows “carious,” as the crowns of most monarchs throughout history inevitably tend to do; the speaker’s crown simply does so in both a literal and figurative sense. Her gemstones, another mark of the speaker’s royalty, are “dropped in the peat floe” (26). Her vestiges of royalty are returned to the bog, just as the remnants of history invariably return to their annals. This provides a sense of the enduring, eternally recurring nature of history, to which the concepts of legacy and royalty are intrinsically linked. Royalty endures throughout history, yet it rises and falls with passing centuries, just as the Bog Queen’s status diminishes over time and her earthly remains make their return to the ground. Even as the speaker’s brain lays “darkening,” her voice remains as that of a queen, stately and majestic even in her putrefying state (18). Despite the robbery of her hair and the humiliating act of being “bartered and stripped by a turfcutter’s spade,” she retains her sense of dignity (47-48). As life continues without her, she decays, and in that very process she is reduced to little more than a source of fuel in the minds of the living people. It is almost as if the biological process of the speaker’s deterioration in the bog is violating her, as read Heaney’s descriptions of the bog seeping “through [her] fabrics and skins” and “in the crock of the pelvis” (9,24). The fjords “nuzzle” at her thighs (35). Heaney maintains a complete sense of gravitas throughout “Bog Queen.” We are acutely aware of just how long the speaker has lay beneath the turf, and how significant it is when she at last rises “from the dark” (53). She has seen centuries pass by, she has been the bearings of history, and yet, she is unmoved from her resting place until the end of the poem. We feel a disturbance in the balance of the bog’s history. 

In contrast with “Bog Queen,” Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” is narrated by a living individual as he narrates the ritual sacrifice of an adulteress to the bog. The speaker empathizes with the condemned woman as she is paraded naked and shorn to the place where she will be killed and subsequently covered with peat in the bog, as was the practice of such ritual. “I can feel the tug/ of the halter at the nape/ of her neck,” says the speaker (1-3). As the speaker recounts the scathing sensations of the woman’s walk of punishment, Heaney’s audience also feels “the wind/ on her naked front” (3-4). The speaker beholds “her drowned body/ in the bog,” narrating the process of a bog’s decomposition from a spectator’s perspective, rather than a firsthand account as in “Bog Queen” (9-10). The speaker muses upon “her blindfold” and “her noose” (19-20). Rather than the speaker’s judges, and justice, being blind, it is the speaker who must be blindfolded and resigned to her fate. Heaney transitions to first-person, and the speaker goes on to mourn the “flaxen-haired,” “undernourished” adulteress and her “beautiful,” “tar-black” face (25-27). His voice takes on a pitiful, patronizing tone as he refers to her as “my poor scapegoat” and “little adulteress” (an oxymoron in itself), despite the fact that she is a grown woman whose “memories of love” have led her to her forlorn fate. It is as if the speaker is romanticizing a lover he might have had, if not for her crimes (22, 28, 29) . “I almost love you,” he says, but freely admits that he would have helped to carry out her death sentence (29). “Punishment” is reminiscent of Seventeenth Century carpe diem poetry genre. Heaney’s speaker might have empathized with Andrew Marvell’s speaker in “To His Coy Mistress”: “Thy beauty shall no more be found […] then into ashes all my lust” (Heaney’s speaker, however, does not seize the day before “tribal, intimate revenge” is exacted. The adulteress lies dead in the bog; her punishment fits such an intimate crime.) 

The speaker in “Bog Queen” and the subject of “Punishment” share a great deal as well, so much so that it is easy to believe that the two women are one and the same. This nearly connects Heaney’s two poems as they are about the same subject from different narrative perspectives. Both poems begin in the first person narrative, but “Punishment” shifts to second person, so each poem ultimately ends with the woman as the primary focus. The bog queen describes her “brain darkening,” as the speaker in “Punishment” describes the “brain’s exposed and darkening combs.” The condemned woman’s “shaved head like a stubble of black corn” recalls the “wet nest” of the bog queen’s “slimy birth-cord” of hair that had been “cut” and “robbed” from her. The bog queen was “bartered and stripped by a turfcutter’s blade,” but perhaps she had already been stripped by those who marched her through the bog, allowing her to feel “the wind on her naked front.” It is, of course, possible that Heaney’s diction in the two poems is simply repetitive and owing to his individual tendencies as a writer, but for such an accomplished poet with two poems of similar tones, formats, and subjects, it would be negligent for diligent readers to attribute such similarities to coincidence. At the end of “Punishment,” the woman is left behind in the bog, until she is risen with a bribe thousands of years later. “Intimate revenge” killed the bog queen, but at the end of her story, it is her prosecutors’ that leave her in the bog that allows her body to be preserved, lying in hibernation, waiting to be discovered. “Bog Queen” finishes on a vindictive note; she has risen in spite of the millennia, in spite of her capital punishment, her murder unable to be swept under the rug of peat moss by the weight of history. 

Heaney’s use of Ireland’s most iconic geological landscape—the bog—is a common theme in many of his poems, not least “Bog Queen” and “Punishment.” Bogs are as quintessential to the Irish experience as potatoes, perhaps even more so—unlike potatoes, Irish bogs stayed constant throughout the Great Hunger. By framing such themes as the inevitable passage of time and the cyclical nature of history in the setting of a bog, Heaney makes his poems distinctly Irish. The setting of the bog itself also helps to highlight Heaney’s themes; any given Irish bog has been present to bear indiscriminate witness to all of Ireland’s history and its hard-won foundation as a sovereign nation. Writing about this geological process allows Heaney to illustrate Ireland’s natural history, which in itself parallels the country’s not-so-distant socioeconomic history of shrinking population and a decayed economy. In Ireland, the past is not merely the past but is ever-present in the landscape and the communities that populate it; citizens still live off of cut turf and sheep herds that populate stark mountain hillsides; houses still sit vacant, left behind and forgotten by emigrant families who never returned. Seamus Heaney understands this concept and immerses his poetry in it; his poetry is infused with the unrest of the Troubles of Heaney’s present, even as it memorializes the distant past. The bogs of Ireland and the artifacts they hide within them are a tangible memory of Ireland’s past; even if a bog body is never discovered, it still exists as a part of the land that helped to preserve its memory. Heaney’s bog queen, his adulteress, has her past memorialized in her own body, and in writing her story, Heaney memorializes Ireland’s past. In reading Heaney’s poetry, the past is memorialized in us. 

Works Cited –

“Bog.” National Geographic Society, National Geographic Magazine, 9 Oct. 2012,

Gibbons, Michael. “Personal Conversation.” Inishbofin, Inishbofin.

Heaney, Seamus. Seamus Heaney: New Selected Poems 1966-1987. Faber and Faber, 1990.

“Iron Age ‘Bog Bodies’ Unveiled.” BBC News, British Broadcasting Company, 7 Jan. 2006,

“Kingship and Sacrifice.” National Museum of Ireland, NMI, 2018,

Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,

Müller, Romina. “Female Virginity and Male Desire in Seventeenth Century Carpe Diem Poetry.” GRIN, Queen Mary University of London, 2011,