Seamus Heaney's poem "Bogland" was included in his second collection, Door into the Dark (1969), and it is one of a number of poems Heaney wrote about the bogs in Ireland. The speaker begins the first stanza by saying what the bogland is not like: the open American prairies, with clear lines in the horizon for the sun to set behind. The speaker also begins the poem in the first person plural. This seems to indicate that the poem represents a general perspective, not an individual one. This is also reflected in the way the speaker refers to "the eye" as a general feature instead of reflection what an individual person sees. The eye "concedes to/Encroaching horizon." This suggests that the speaker or speakers feels overwhelmed by the landscape.
The eye is also "wooed into the cyclops' eye/Of a tarn," a tarn being a small mountain lake. The eye seems to turn inward, away from the horizon and into the depths of the earth and water. The second stanza continues, "Our unfenced country/Is bog that keeps crusting/Between the sights of the sun." The speaker's description of Ireland reduces it to its physical presence.
The next stanza focuses on a skeleton of a Great Irish Elk, an extinct species of deer, that was removed from the peat and set up as a fossil. The speaker marvels at it, describing it as an "astounding crate of air," which seems to refer to the emptiness within the skeleton.
The following stanza turns to other objects uncovered during excavation of the peat. "Butter sunk under/More than a hundred years/Was recovered salty and white," the speaker says, then compares the ground itself to butter, calling it "kind" and describing its malleability.
The speaker then laments the unproductive nature of the bogs, which have missed "their last definition/By millions of years." By this the speaker refers to the coal that would form if the bogs were left in the right condition for geological periods of time. The speaker asserts that "They'll never dig coal here," apparently referring to the Irish turf farmers.
"Bogland" by Seamus Heaney is split into seven stanzas with four lines each, and it follows no specific rhyme scheme, meter, or form, but its even, sparse lines fit the melancholy tone. The poem begins by focusing on the lack of open horizons that would neatly cut the sun at sunset. Instead, "the eye concedes to/Encroaching horizon." The use of the word "concede" places the eye in a submissive role compared to the horizon. The use of the word "encroaching" also suggests that the landscape puts pressure upon the speaker/s of this poem, forcing them to look inward instead of outward.
This push and pull of power continues in the next stanza, where the eye is "wooed into the cyclops' eye/Of a tarn." The word "woo" emphasizes the speaker's submissiveness to the landscape but also hints at some form of resistance; one would not need to be wooed if one were not resistant.
The second stanza continues, "Our unfenced country/Is bog that keeps crusting/Between the sights of the sun." By referring to the land as "Our unfenced country," the speaker indicates some possessiveness over that land, but its unfenced nature emphasizes its wildness, how far it is from the speaker's control. By describing how the bog becomes crusty from the sun every day, the speaker shows how unchanging the landscape is. The use of the word "sights" subtly echoes the image of the "cyclops' eye of a tarn" from several lines earlier. The comparisons of the bogs and tarns to eyes breathe life into Irish landscape; these wetlands appear watchful yet silent and imbued with the power to pull in any observers.
In the following stanza, the speaker says, "They've taken the skeleton/Of the Great Irish Elk /Out of the peat..." The use of the pronoun "they" indicates that the speaker feels separate from this action; it also underscores the poem's lack of a specific perspective. The speaker describes the skeleton as an "astounding crate of air," which emphasizes both the impressiveness of the discovery and its ultimate hollowness. The bogs have the effect of preserving the past, but they do little for the present or future; this issue arises later in the poem when the speaker brings up forms of fuel that are easier to harvest.
The next stanza begins with the lines, "Butter sunk under/More than a hundred years/Was recovered salty and white." Here the speaker uses a small slip in language to insinuate that the butter was buried not only in the bog but in time itself; time in this landscape has a physical presence, but paradoxically it preserves the butter instead of destroying it.
"The ground itself is kind, black butter," the next line reads. By describing the ground as "kind" and "melting and opening," the speaker indicates tender feelings for the bogland, which yields compliantly. However, the speaker then points out that this ground is not at its "last definition," i.e., coal, which would take millions of years to form. This emphasizes the sense of inadequacy that the landscape of this poem is heavy with.
The fifth stanza ends on the line "They'll never dig coal here," which recalls the earlier use of the general "They" in reference to those who dug up the Elk skeleton. The "waterlogged trunks/Of great firs" are the only thing dug from this landscape. This image echoes the Great Irish Elk. Like the elk skeleton, while preserved tree trunks are interesting to discover, they are not useful.
"Our pioneers keep striking/Inwards and downwards," the penultimate stanza begins. Like the mention of the prairies in stanza one, this part of the poem seems to compare the Irish bogs to the North American prairies, and these pioneers to the American ones. In direct opposition to the American explorers, who explored the possibilities of the future, these pioneers explore the history of Ireland, which is a futile exercise.
The final stanza makes it clear that these paths have been tread before, or appear to have been. "Every layer [the pioneers] strip/Seems camped on before," the speaker says. The idea that this journey of inward discovery has been done before emphasizes its unproductive nature. "The wet centre is bottomless," the poem concludes. This image is ambiguous, but if the pioneers are digging into the past through the bogs, it seems that this task is ceaseless. The tone is solemn, maybe a touch mournful, and through the speaker's vague sense of disappointment the reader is able to understand that failure is built into this landscape.