Critical Analysis of “The Tollund Man” | Poem by Seamus Heaney

Critical Analysis of "The Tollund Man" | Poem by Seamus Heaney

“The Tollund Man” is inspired by the sealed body of a prehistoric man, discovered in a bog in Denmark. It is said that the man was put to death as part of a sacrificial rite. In past, it was believed that by doing so, fertility of the crops could be improved. The poem apparently is about customs and rules, which were being followed in the Iron Age but critical analysis of “The Tollund Man” transpires that it symbolizes the history of Ireland. Seamus Heaney illustrates that it is routine matter for Irishmen to undergo oppression in Northern Ireland and it is habitual for them to sacrifice their lives so as to save the lives of other fellowmen.

Click to read “The Tollund Man” instead of its critical analysis.

Critical Analysis of “The Tollund Man” (First Part):

In start of the poem, the poet gives detail description of Tollund Man’s body and wishes to visit Aarhus so he can see it. “Some day I will go to Aarhus”. Seamus Heaney vows to visit Aarhus, the ‘temple’ of the Tollund Man, because he has developed a deep sense of religious devotion. Poet is hopeful that he would visit the temple yet from the tense atmosphere it seems that he is depressed.

He also gives minute detail of every part of the body; “peat-brown head”, “mild pods of his eye-lid” and “pointed skin cap”. Besides, imagery has skillfully been crafted by the poet. “bridegroom to the goddess” can be referred in this context. It is also symbolic. It indicates sacrificing lives for Nerthus (goddess associated with fertility). “Opened her fen”, “dark juices”, “tightened her tore” symbolizes as bizarre type of sexual amalgamation. Heaney’s imagination is vivid in this regard. In the upcoming lines, Heaney compares Tollund Man with a saint, as his body is in corrupt. The Tollund Man successfully accepted the death with the hope that it would be beneficial for his fellowmen. He died while expecting that crops would grow and his death would be fruitful for the people of his society.

After doing critical analysis of the poem, critics find similarity in “The Tollund Man” and Irishmen. Tollund man sacrificed his life for his people. He wanted to save them from hunger. He died for them so that no one could die of starvation. Irishmen are also doing the same. They are sacrificing their lives for their fellowmen though they are not doing it to avoid starvation.

The Tollund Man also symbolizes devoutness. Tone of the poet indicates the helplessness of the man in front of the gods. In order to gain favours of gods people are compelled to perform these kind of rituals. The Tollund man may be a martyr for many people but Heaney’s point of view is different from the mob. According to him, he is neither a hero nor a martyr but just a victim. It was believed that each winter the goddess wanted sacrifice of new bridegrooms to certify the fertility of the crops in the next spring season. The poet is against such like principles. He likes peace but not that which comes subject to sacrificing innocent human beings in front of gods. In other words, he is against violence. He compares “”the old man killing parishes of Jutland” with his own land. Although, death incident of Tulland Man belongs to the Iron Age yet it symbolizes the event, when Christ was crucified. He died for the welfare of humanity as the Tollund man did. It further symbolizes the struggle of Irish people, who lost their lives for the future and welfare of their children. The sacrifices of Irishmen are still fresh in the mind of Seamus Heaney as he was Irish not British. He once wrote “Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To Toast the Queen”. Somehow, there is a strong bond between Heaney and the Tollund Man. Nevertheless, the poet shares grieves and sorrows of Irish widows and children and he tries to explain it through this poem by using the technique of symbolism.

Critical Analysis of “The Tollund Man” (Second Part):

“I could risk blasphemy,”: second section of the poem suggests fear in the mind of poet. He fears that he has committed blasphemy as he does not find these violent rituals fruitful. It is again a reference for his own people. Seamus Heaney has seen slaughter of Irish people, who were killed ruthlessly in the civil war. They may be called freedom fighters but first they were labourers and ordinary people. They were innocent, who neither wanted any kingship nor were they devoted to wealth but a free life.

In this part we find a kind of universality in the work of Seamus Heaney. We know that the bog men were different from Irish people by their religion, language, and race yet humanity is mother of every religion and it must be preferred on races and nations.

Critical Analysis of “The Tollund Man” (Third Part):

By recalling names of Tollund, Grabaulle and Nebelgard, Heaney like Yeats shows his close association with those who were killed in the war. He blubs for his fellow citizens.

Last section of the poem is about isolation of the poet. His tone is no more expectant. He has no willpower to move further. The poem shares following common themes:

  • Death,
  • Religion,
  • Culture,
  • Rituals,
  • Myth,
  • Customs,
  • Powerlessness,
  • Violence
  • Isolation
  • Despair

The poem ends with statement; “I will feel lost/unhappy and at home”.

Critical Analysis of “The Tollund Man” (Conclusion):

Heaney was a universal poet. He defended poetry because he was a pure poet though he did never do poetry for the sake of poetry. He claims that poetry should be free from politics but in “The Tollund Man”, he cannot not keep himself away from it. He, by using the technique of symbolism, reiterated the history of Irishmen. In “The Redress of Poetry”, he recommends that along with politics poetry should be free from social issues but ironically, in this poem he underestimates his own rules. Poem consists of extended theme of childhood. It iterates the history of Northern Ireland. It is not only a story of Tollund Man but also the civil unrest between Catholics and Protestants, and the resentment of British law imposed on the Irish people. It is, therefore, numbers of critics after doing critical analysis of “The Tollund Man” comments that it is a skillful craftsmanship of Seamus Heaney in the field of English Literature.