A Comparison Between ‘Requiem For The croppies’ And ‘The Tollund Man’, both by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heany is a poet, born in Northern Ireland in 1939. He currently divides his time between his home in Dublin and Harvard University, where he is ‘Emerson poet in residence’.

Heaney’s poems are rarely political but two poems which comment indirectly on sectarian violence are ‘Requiem For The Croppies’- written in 1966, and ‘The Tollund Man’ which was published in 1972.

Each poem is inspired by the past but is revolving to the recent troubles.

Heaney was awarded the ‘Nobel Prize for Literature’ in 1995.

‘Requiem For The Croppies’ was written in 1966 to mark the anniversary of the Easter rising (the Easter rising refers to a rebellion against the British by the catholic Irish which brought about the civil war.). The poem tells of an earlier rebellion of the Irish against the protestant British in 1798 and how this rebellion can be linked to the Easter rising and current sectarian violence in Ireland. Heany writes the poem in the first person, as if he were one of the croppies; a peasant youth rebelling against the protestant British who are running catholic Ireland.

‘The Tollund Man’ is another of Heaney’s poems in which he comments indirectly on the sectarian violence in Ireland. This poem was written after Heaney was inspired by a book by P.V Glob which features recently discovered two-thousand year old bodies, which had been perfectly preserved in a peat bog in Denmark. This poem opens with the poet, Heany, saying how he would like to visit the body of ‘The Tollund Man’ at a museum in Aarhus, Denmark; something he actually did in 1973.

‘Requiem For The Croppies’ opens with the lines:

‘The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley –

No kitchens on the run, no striking camp-

We moved quick and sudden in our own country’,

This refers to how the croppies, a small unprepared army of catholic Irish citizens, marched across a land they believed to have been theirs. These lines describe how the croppies filled their pockets with barley for food as they had no travelling kitchen or organised meal arrangements.

The poem tells how war is a great equaliser among men. In 1798, classes rarely mingled with each other, however, these men are all fighting for the same cause and so see each other as equals and sleep together, as told in line four: ‘The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp’. The fact that a priest is fighting the war also gave the Catholics moral legitimacy.

The croppies appeared as hikers to passing folk, they did not march as it was an informal undisciplined army. The croppies had small victories fuelled by spontaneity

The word ‘until’ shows the sudden pivot of luck in the croppies tale; the rebels were slain on the Vinegar Hill in what Heaney described as ‘the fatal conclave’.

‘Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.

The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.’ These lines describe just how pathetic the weapons of the rebels were compared to those of the British. The Irish rebels had scythes to defend themselves in battle, which were generally no match for a prepared army with cannons. And so, the rebels, fighting in rows side-by-side (like terraces), were slaughtered. The idea of the ‘blushing’ hillside, gives the idea of how blood was spilt on the land and giving it the red, ‘blushing’ appearance.

The croppies were buried without ‘shroud or coffin’; this explains how the croppies were given a mass burial with no ceremony or funeral rites which is very important to the catholic religion. ‘The barley grew up out of the grave. This line has a lot of meaning in the poem, the croppies were buried in the clothing they wore and the barley from their coats literally took root and grew, this implies that you can defeat an army but the spirit of resistance lives on.

‘The Tollund Man’ is divided into three parts. The first part of the poem opens with:

‘Some day I will go to Aarhus

To see his peat-brown head,

The mild pods of his eyelids,

His pointed skin cap.

This first verse expresses Heaney’s wish to visit the Tollund man in Aarhus, Denmark, he has only seen photographs of the body and wants to see it in person. Heany describes the ‘Tollund man’ as having a ‘peat-brown head’ this is because when the body was discovered the skin was stained brown from the peat. The ‘mild pods of his eyelids’ refers to just how well the body had been preserved (the Tollund man still had his hair, teeth and eyes, as well as the contents of his stomach, perfectly preserved (‘the last gruel of winter seeds caked in his stomach)). Heaney then says how he would stand in awe of the body, full of reverence, if he were able to visit it (I will stand a long time, bridegroom to the goddess’).

In the fourth verse of the first section Heaney describes the Tollund Man’s death quite sexually; ‘She tightened her torc on him,

And opened her fen,

Those dark juices working him

To a saints kept body’

This is Heaney’s way of describing the Tollund man’s execution (a sacrificial ritual to the pagan god of fertility, Nerthus). The Tollund Man’s neck was broken in a vice (tightening the torc) and he was buried in the peat bog (‘opened her fen’) where he sank deeper into the peat to be preserved perfectly for two thousand years (‘those dark juices working him to a saint’s kept body).

The final verse closes with Heany commenting on how valuable the find was to the archaeologists and now the mud stained face ‘reposes’ at Aarhus.

Part two of this poem is about four catholic brothers who were ambushed by protestant men. The brothers were tied to the back of a train and dragged to their death over several miles of train line, parts of their bodies were found up and down the line including teeth and patches of skin. Heany says that if it were possible to bring the brothers back to life by risking blasphemy and praying to the Tollund man, then he would do so.

The third section of this poem discusses Heaney’s journey to Aarhus. He will feel estranged because of ‘language barriers’ but at home because he can link the death of the Tollund Man to the deaths of people in his homeland, both die for their religion.

‘Requiem for the croppies’ is in Miltonic sonnet format, it comprises of fourteen lines in an octave plus sestet format. The poem also features a complex rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD EFEFEF. The dashes on the third line regarding the croppies’ feeding habits add parenthesis (conversation aside).

Heany uses a few metaphors (e.g. ‘terraced thousands’ ‘hillside blushed’) to add imagery to this piece of writing and the antithesis of ‘shaking scythes at cannon’ is a good contrast to use when comparing the weak to the strong.

‘The Tollund Man’ is written in a conversational tone and comprises of several quatrains per section and it has no rhyme scheme. The poem uses metaphors to describe the shape of the eyes; ‘pods’ allows the reader to visualise a thin layer containing some sort of round object e.g. a pea pod. The paradox ‘unhappy and at home’ is an ironic paradox relating to his how he has become accustomed to killing around him yet it still makes him sad to know it is going on. The oxymoron ‘sad freedom’ is ironic because you wouldn’t tend to use two words which involve opposite emotions to be next to each other in descriptive writing.

I prefer ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ because I find it more dramatic and moving. The pivot in the story adds a thrill to the tale and it is not as long and cryptic as ‘The Tollund Man’.

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