Seamus Heaney and P.V. Glob on the Danish bog burials
"As if he had been poured in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf and seems to weep the black river of himself."Seamus Heaney's 'The Grauballe Man' has one of the best openings of any poem. It really sticks in the mind. It was also my introduction to the world of the Danish Iron Age bog burials. Around two thousand years ago, a number of men and women were violently killed, for reasons that are largely unknown, and their bodies deposited like offerings in the waters of local bogs. The acids in the peat helped preserve the closest details of skin and features, while the weight of bog layered above them flattened and twisted their bodies into Heaney's apposite 'black rivers'.
The Grauballe Man was discovered in 1952 in central Jutland by peat cutters. Along with the Tollund Man, found nearby two years earlier and also commemorated by Heaney, he is one of the most famous of the bog burials. Once seen, he is impossible to forget, and Heaney's poem reflects this. It is one of those poems on a given subject which, once read, renders any attempt to revisit the subject pointless. He describes the ball of the Grauballe Man's foot as looking 'Like a basalt egg', his instep 'cold as a swan's foot/or a wet swamp root'. And he describes a cut on the throat as opening 'to a dark/elderberry place.' The poem is deceptively simple but full of metaphors that work so well because they are so appropriate - every thing he compares the body to has something to do with Danish bogland.
Heaney was a student of bogland, whether in Denmark or his native Ireland. In two collections, 'North' and 'Wintering Out', both published by Faber, he explores both landscapes and the sacrificial rituals of their prehistoric inhabitants. Of course, there are glimpses of the Ireland he himself knew - he references the Troubles in 'The Tollund Man' for instance, adding that 'Out here in Jutland/In the old man-killing parishes/I will feel lost,/unhappy and at home'. But at least on the surface many of the poems in these sister collections are a celebration of the lost histories of the bogs.
As I said, Heaney's poems are deceptively simple. He is also a master at using a few choice words to sum up the look and sound of a thing. Describing another bog burial in 'Tete Coupee' he writes 'Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod,/Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings', the 'c' sounds in the first line mirroring the solid cut peat, the 'l's in the second signifying water and depth. Read it again and you'll see exactly what I mean. In 'Kinship' he explores the possibilities of language itself, like an eskimo describing snow: 'Quagmire, swampland, morass:/the slime kingdoms,/domains of the cold-blooded,/of mud pads and dirtied eggs'.
If you read the poems in 'North' and 'Wintering Out' and want to know more, I can recommend 'The Bog People' by the appropriately-named P V Glob. Doctor Glob investigated may of the Danish bog bodies first hand, and his book, first published in 1969 (I have a 1971 paperback by Paladin) tells the stories of the Tollund and Grauballe men and their fellow victims in loving detail - from the circumstances of their discovery to their preservation and examination, even eliciting clues from pollen found on the bodies as to their final meals.
Glob is a poet in his own way. Maybe it is the nature of the material he is working with, but his descriptions of peat, bog and bone are compelling. He begins the book with a depiction of Tollund Fen: 'Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west...the evening stillness was only broken...by the grating love-call of the snipe.' In the second chapter he describes the peat layers in which the Grauballe man was found: 'A soft light-coloured layer of sphagnum moss extended both under and over the body...Centuries of peat-cutting, indicated by a sort of honeycombing of the surrounding peat strata, had reduced it, and it had gone to feed the fires of the neighbouring houses and farms.'
His conversational style is explained in his introduction. He wrote the book, apparently, in answer to a letter from a class of Suffolk school girls who sent him an 'enthusiastic' letter asking for further information on the Tollund Man. Throughout 'The Bog People' you feel as if Dr Glob is addressing you personally, inviting you to join him on his archaeological treasure hunt, taking in old murder cases, Norse mythology and the inherent humanity of the bog bodies on the way. That is the one fact that he never loses sight of.
Even if you don't read anything by Glob or Heaney, at least Google the Tollund Man and see what inspired both of them to homage him in writing. Then, see if you can resist finding out exactly what they have to say on this little known episode of human history.