Almost as soon as this begins to occur, his thoughts start to take a hostile turn as he envisages being able to, “wind it [the bone] in the sling of mind”, and “pitch it at England”, the old enemy. Again there is the idea of the bone as stone, with the mind as a catapult. This obviously draws on the myth of David and Goliath, where the bigger and stronger giant is vanquished by a small boy who is only equipped with a sling when he goes into battle. The giant, laughing at the size of the boy, is taken by surprise when he hurls a stone at him, which fells him. The suggestion is that if Ireland could catch England unawares, they could beat them in a centuries long battle. Even so, the imagery does imply that this is a petulant thought without much hope attached to it. Before he has even finished the idea of hurling the bone across the ocean in a futile gesture of defiance he is already wishing that he could in some way accompany it, to “follow its drop/ to strange fields”. The implication is that he is thinking about England, the Irish/English situation, but before this develops, he moves into the second section of the poem and into a digression.
He with a kenning, “Bone House”, and then refers us to a definition of the phrase; “A skeleton”, in old Norse; the language of the Vikings, those other invaders of Ireland. Curiously, his thoughts of the Viking invaders are benign in comparison to his thoughts on the English invaders, although this can easily be attributed to the continuing situation in Northern Ireland today. Mention of language inspires him to “push back/ through dictions,” to imagine himself as wading down through layer upon layer of language. He goes down through the English language, past “Elizabethan canopies”, with their billowy, additions, to the warlike, “Norman devices” and on to the contributions from the French language, “the mayflowers of Provence”; there are “the ivied latins” of the church and the “scop’s twang”, that is, the nasal intonation of the bard reciting his poetry. His reference to the severity of consonants, “the iron flash”, in English, suggests a harshness of language opposed to the softer sounds of Irish Gaelic. Heaney has a special irritation here, which refers bitterly to the injustice visited upon the Irish when the English outlawed the use of their own language.
Even so, there is an acknowledgement that language does evolve, as stressed in the flow and change of the English language through history. It is also the language that Heaney speaks himself and is educated in.
His continuation into language overflows into the third section of the poem, in his reference to language as being stored like treasure, “in the coffered riches”. He is returning to his earlier investigation of the “bone-house” theme, having “found” the kenning “ban-hus” in Norse. This finding creates an image of the scholarly Heaney searching through old language books in a bid to trace the roots of language, a subject that fascinates him.
The Vikings, in their myth making and story telling, regularly described the skeleton as a house for the soul; houses, themselves, were often used as metaphors for the human body and soul. The “bone-house” was a place where “the soul fluttered for a while”, having “a small crock for the brain” and, in a dry-humoured way, he describes, “a cauldron of generation”, that is, male genitalia, which, “swung in the middle”. This is the hot, passionate place from where the male lines spring, going forward into the future. In an actual house, it might be the cooking pot, or cauldron, hanging over the fire, but he reiterates his sexual joke with crafty references to the “love-den, blood-holt” and “dream bower”. This sexualised language is echoed in section three when he refers to the “bone’s lair” (a transparent genital pun) as being “a love nest in the grass”, highly suggestive in itself of pubic hair and not dissimilar to the expression, “snake in the grass”. The obvious sexual metaphor of the snake and the penis should not, I believe, be discounted! Of course, there are layers of meaning here, as in almost everywhere in a Heaney poem, and so these lines might also suggest a bed or a pile of hay.
The idea of the sneaky snake in the grass, too, could suggest the mixed pedigrees of both the English and Irish races, due to invasion.
He then speaks tenderly of “holding my lady’s head” and of turning himself into bone “by gazing” – which is when the poem begins to become obscure and difficult to fathom. The language is erotic, “my hands, on the sunken fosse of her spine” are highly suggestive of male hands caressing a woman’s body in a sexual way. A fosse is a damp ditch or shallow moat, and so represents the female vagina. In which case, if the female part of the equation in the English/Irish argument is usually figured as Ireland, as disempowered and feminised, does he therefore imagine himself as “a chalk giant” spread out across the Irish landscape or is he envisaging himself as an invading male, with England as disempowered, in a kind of fantasy rape? The chalk giants of the west of England are, after all, ancient fertility symbols, depicted with giagantic, erect penises.
In positing the latter, I am influenced by his references not only to these “chalk giants”, a feature of the English landscape, butalso to Hadrian’s Wall, which is the Scots’ attempt at keeping the English out, as well as Maiden Castle, which is an ancient fortress situated in the west of England.
In Norse mythology the sexual conquest of the enemy was seen as being highly embarrassing for the males of that nation, and for this reason, I see sections four and five of the poem as being a kind of loving rape of the enemy – a paradox, but an understandable one given Heaney’s conflicting emotions about England.
Confusingly, he darts off into another tangent in the final section of the poem, by recounting a time when, in his childhood on a visit to Devon, he found a dead mole. The mole is a creature that is extinct in Ireland and so a mole is, in essence as a metaphor, English. Yet the mole is dead and of course moles dig. Heaney harks back here to his earlier poetry, the poetry of a younger man, in “Digging”. Is the death of the mole a statement that the digging creature he thought himself to be is dead and that a new poetic creature is resurrected in its place, because he is understanding something about the history of the whole English/Irish situation? After all, he seems to have happy memories of visiting the country in childhood, a time traditionally seen idealistically.
As an idealistic young poet, he perhaps thought that by using his pen to “dig with” he would be able to satisfy himself, yet for all his digging into history he was perhaps no nearer to being satisfied on the English/Irish problem and his own dichotomy of feeling towards a race who are still the invaders. He had thought the mole, “a big boned coulter”, a coulter being the sharp piece of the plough blade. Yet he speaks of it as if the plough is organic, signifying a transformation of a machine into a flesh and blood creature – himself? The plough is the ultimate earth digging tool, and so could be a reference to himself that he has suddenly realised is not quite as capable of finding and examining the truth as he had hoped. The mole is a tiny creature, too and blind, “those little points were the eyes”, as if to say that he had never really seen anything. Furthermore, if he is “identifying” with the English (if he is the mole) then this poem could be about trying to see through the eyes of the invader and coming to a new understanding through this identification process.
The closing lines are highly optimistic, as if the sun has come out from being behind a very large, black cloud; “I touched small distant Pennines, /a pelt of grass and grain/running south”.
The final section as a whole is highly suggestive of discovery or of realisation, of altered perception and of forgiveness for past sins. The poem begins in Ireland with a piece of yellowing bone, but ends in England with a dead mole. The bone found on Irish grass has taken him through a series of thoughts and memories. At the end he seems altered by the experience.