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Unearthing Humour with “The Grauballe Man” By Seamus Heaney

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When one thinks of poetry, laughter might not be the immediate reaction. However, as we delve into the visceral imagery of Seamus Heaney’s “The Grauballe Man”, we find there’s room for a chuckle amidst the profound. Today, I explore this iconic poem, explaining its meaning and, in a light-hearted way, the history behind this iconic poem. Of course, if you enjoy it, read 11 more Seamus Heaney poems here.


Seamus Heaney The Grauballe Man

The Grauballe Man it sounds like the name of a superhero, doesn’t it? You can almost picture him soaring across the Danish skies(more on that later), cape flapping in the wind, ready to rescue distressed archaeologists from misclassifying ancient relics. Alas, our subject is slightly less animated, albeit equally intriguing.

Heaney’s poem unveils the story of a preserved Iron Age body discovered in a peat bog near Grauballe, Denmark. The poem is thick with imagery, almost as thick as the mud that encased our ancient friend for centuries. Heaney paints a picture of the past, embroiled in violence and sacrifice, connecting it subtly to his own contemporary Northern Ireland.

As if he had been poured in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf…

Heaney begins. The poet’s description is so vivid it’s almost comical to imagine the Grauballe Man having a spa day, indulging in a mud bath that lasted a tad too long. Talk about commitment to skincare!

Jokes aside, The Grauballe Man becomes a poignant symbol of eternal rest and the ceaseless cycles of violence. The preserved man, with his eerily perfect skin and contorted features, serves as a bridge between epochs, a tangible relic whispering tales from the Iron Age.

As we chuckle at the absurdity of time, the longevity of a good mud pack, and our own fleeting existence, Heaney’s The Grauballe Man emerges not just as a historical artefact but as a reflection of our own times. The poem is a brilliant reminder that history often repeats itself, sometimes as tragedy and sometimes, if we’re lucky, as farce.

The Grauballe Man, encapsulated in Heaney’s verses, does just that – it provokes thought, incites a chuckle, and leaves us contemplating our place in the grand tapestry of history.

So, the next time you find yourself stuck in a mud mask, wondering if you’ve left it on too long, spare a thought for The Grauballe Man – a testament to the enduring, and sometimes amusing, nature of history.

Now after that, I am sure you would like to read the poem. Great! 

Here is the poem: 

The Grauballe Man

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep
the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel
like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.
His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.
The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat
that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.
Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?
And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face
in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,
but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,
hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed
on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

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