Bone Dreams by Seamus Heaney - An Analysis

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Bone Dreams by Seamus Heaney – An Analysis

Bone Dreams is an obscure and difficult poem to understand. In all my searching on the internet, I found very little to help me in my analysis of this poem and so the ideas are basically my own. I might be wide of the mark, but for anybody struggling to understand this poem, it might at least give you some ideas of your own. I make no apology for asking questions or for sounding vague or even muddled in places. I hope that this essay is of help to somebody, somewhere.

The poem begins in a thoughtful mood; the voice is relaxed, “White bone found/on the grazing” suggesting that the speaker is walking in the countryside when he discovers a piece of bone in the grass. He uses tactile imagery to describe his find, the bone is “rough, porous” and has “the language of touch”. This image would be powerful if not for the mildness of the language, which conveys a musing quality in its passivity, for example, “found” and  “grazing” - these words have nothing of a hurry about them and suggest a peacefulness of mind in the opening stanzas.

He continues to describe the piece of bone, making comparisons with a “ship-burial” and notes the impressions in the grass as “yellowing, ribbed”. The word “ribbed” is suggestive, with its subject matter of bone, to a rib-cage.

The bone takes on a significance which is greater than its intrinsic worth – which is nothing – because the speaker equates it with treasure; it is, “flint-find”, a “nugget of chalk”, the word nugget being quite often associated with gold, and therefore he says it has a value in itself. “Flint” suggests history, a link to the stone-age and the find is, in fact, described as being, “as dead as stone”. So here we have the remnants of an animal skeleton, held in the hand and being read as something important – it has history, it lies in the grass in a land with a history and so the “nugget of chalk” begins to grow in importance in the mind of the finder. Of course, you can also write with chalk, and the act of and implements of writing are often found in the metaphors and similes of Heaney’s poetry.

In the third stanza, the speaker “touches it again” and it is almost as if this act of touching for a second time sparks off a series of thoughts, tangential in quality, and as tangents do, they move freely from one image to another, imbuing the writing with a dreamlike quality. It is almost as if the bone has him in a powerful trance. The bone, which has become part of the landscape, has transformed into a device for releasing thought processes. Landscape, being one of the favourite themes of Heaney, is in itself a part of history. It is the history of Ireland and its people and its landscape that often preoccupies the poet and, here, we see some of this preoccupation allowed flight as his mind takes off in a series of flickering thoughts and associations.

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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 ...

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