Both poems are inspired by Heaney’s fascination with ‘bog people’ – age-old corpses preserved naturally by bogs. The Grauballe man concerns a photograph of a “bog man” found by Heaney. Heaney creates a vivid connection between the bog and man throughout the poem. As we see in the first stanza, the man ‘lies on a pillow of turf and seems to weep the black river of himself’. The man and bog seem to be one with ‘the black river of himself’. They appear linked and connected. The atmosphere seems calm and tranquil. The man, although brutally murdered, seems somewhat relaxed and peaceful; he ‘lies on a pillow of turf’.
The idea of connection between bog and man continues as Heaney writes, ‘the grain of his wrists is like bog oak’. Heaney seems to suggest that he has been there so long, they have almost merged together to become one being. Over time, the man has gradually become part of the bog; they have a mutual relationship. This theme continues as the man’s ‘instep’ is described as being like a ‘wet swamp root’. The man has gradually become at one with his surroundings, to the point that he and the swamp have effectively fused into one being.
Throughout the first four stanza’s, Heaney picks the man apart, comparing his various body parts to different elements of the swamp, namely in stanza four – ‘his hips are the ridge and purse of a mussel, his spine an eel arrested under the glisten of mud’. This is done to the point that the man seems less human and more like an object, as you would view any other part of the bog. Furthermore, it seems to Heaney he appears to be an object of beauty. He describes him intensely, like a natural wonder. The persona seems fascinated by the body. The first four stanzas act as a significant contrast to the opening description of ‘Punishment’.
There is no sense of the beauty or delicacy that we find in ‘The Grauballe man’. Heaney violently begins with ‘I can feel the tug of the halter at the nape of her neck’. This discomforting beginning immediately creates a dark mood. Whilst in ‘The Grauballe man’ you are merely observing a body, here you are immediately being forced to connect and identify with it. It is much more personal. The raw description continues with ‘the wind of her naked front’. The body seems exposed and undignified, in a different way to the Grauballe man, like an object.
The Grauballe man is described to be a thing of beauty, whilst the body in ‘punishment’ seems discarded and degraded. This idea continues as we see she has a ‘shaved head like a black stubble of corn’. We can see she has been ritually disgraced and removed of her dignity. Heaney describes her ‘drowned body’ and the ‘weighing stone’ that drowned her. Thus is unlike the Grauballe man, who, although we find has also been murdered, seems relaxed and peaceful. The descriptive language used in the first half of each poem is also very different. ‘Punishment’ uses short, abrasive sounding words such as ‘tug’ and ‘nape’.
Heaney uses small amounts of vowels, packing words full of consonants, such as ‘rigging’. The verbs used are forceful and aggressive such as, ‘tug’, ‘shake’ and ‘drowned’. This all amounts to create a feeling of tension, aggression and unease. The language used in the first half of ‘The Grauballe Man’ is very dissimilar. Heaney uses longer, smoother sounding words. He employs long vowel sounds in words such as ‘poured’ and ‘grain’, creating a much more relaxed mood. This relaxed mood, however, is abruptly broken as Heaney unexpectedly uses the phrase ‘slashed throat’.
It is a stark contrast to the language we have heard up to this point. So far, the language used has been smooth and gentle, opposite to the harsh, coarse sounding ‘slashed throat’. It completely breaks the atmosphere of the poem. The harsh sounds emphasise the brutality of the wound. This continues with ‘tanned and toughened’. Yet this is only a brief lapse in mood, as the poem reverts to its previous state. The language is again calm. Heaney manages to find beauty in even the most brutal element of the man with ‘the cured wound opens inwards to a dark elderberry place’. He sees rich, deep colour in the savage wound.
Both poems experience similar changes in focus half way through. The focus changes from just description to thought and consideration of the described. In ‘Punishment’, we begin to sense a feeling of guilt coming from Heaney as he first describes the woman as ‘little adulteress’. From here, the poem takes on a different level. A similar transition occurs in ‘The Grauballe Man’, as Heaney begins to question the reader with ‘Who will say ‘corpse to his vivid cast? Who will say ‘body to his opaque repose? ‘ Heaney views the man as more than just a ‘corpse’ or ‘body’, he mocks such defamatory notions.
He sees the man as much more. Furthermore, Heaney goes on to compare the man to a ‘foetus’ and ‘baby’. He is comparing an age-old corpse, which we would usually never associate with any form of life, with possibly the clearest expression of life, a baby or foetus. Heaney describes the profound effect the image of the man has on him, ‘perfected in my memory’, down to the most specific detail, ‘the red horn of his nails’. In ‘Punishment’, we see the persona begins to feel guilt as he looks as the body. Heaney describes the ‘tar-black face’ of the body and addresses her as ‘poor scapegoat’.
We see now she was killed for committing adultery, the tarring and feathering a common social humiliation for committing such a crime. Heaney goes on to say ‘I almost love you, but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence’. This is the beginning of his apparent admission of guilt. It is from this point that Heaney begins to relate the poem to modern day Ireland. Heaney describes himself as ‘the artful voyeur’, partly responsible for her situation, as he goes on to say ‘I who have stood dumb when your betraying sisters, cauled in tar, wept by the railings’.
He is referring to the common humiliation of catholic girls in the period of the Irish Troubles, who would be publicly tarred and feathered if found to be corresponding or romancing with protestants or British soldiers. Heaney is saying he has seen such incidents occur and ‘stood dumb’, letting it happen. Heaney describes himself to ‘connive in civilized outrage, yet understand the exact and tribal, intimate revenge’. Although he would appear to be outraged, he says he understands the ‘tribal’ revenge.
The use of the word tribal is also very significant; as there were tribes hundreds of years ago at the time of the dead girl, there are now – Catholics and Protestants. He is consumed by guilt at the sight of the brutalised corpse, as he sees he is no better than those who killed the girl. In much the same way, Heaney also relates ‘The Grauballe Man’ to modern day Ireland. As we see with ‘hung in the scales… with the dying Gaul… with the actual weight of each hooded victim slashed and dumped’ he compare death of a warrior Gaul with the futile, anonymous deaths of present day sectarian victims.
Both poems follow this format, ending by relating the bodies to modern day Ireland. Both poems are concerned with the cyclical nature of humanity. Heaney aims to show that although societies change and we develop fraudulent notions of how civilized we are, we remain intrinsically the same. We are always capable of committing the most horrific acts of brutality. He is trying to tell us that there will always be fighting tribes and they with never differ hugely. Images from two thousand years ago match perfectly with the headlines of Ireland in the period of the Troubles.