Bogland Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Great Irish Elk (symbol)

The speaker of this poem compares the skeleton of the Great Irish Elk, which is pulled out of the peat, to an "astounding cage of air." This image seems to act as a symbol for the bottomlessness and uselessness that the speaker finds in the Irish bogs. The appearance of the Elk shows how the bogs preserve Ireland's past.

The pioneers (allegory)

The pioneers in this poem are Irish, and they dig in the peat, but by calling them pioneers, Heaney implicitly compares them to the pioneers of North America, who are historically associated with the word "pioneer." The speaker seems affected by the trope of exploration and westward movement that shapes those pioneers in history. In comparison to them, the actions of the Irish pioneers seem futile, for they dig toward a bottomless center, and each layer they uncover "seems camped on before," while the American pioneers were exploring new lands to establish a new way of life.

The bogs (symbol)

The bogs that appear in this poem are complex, for they represent themselves but also act as symbols. They preserve the past, but they represent a dead end; the bogs are a limited resource, and the peat dug from them will never be as useful as coal.

The cyclops' eye (symbol)

The cyclops in this poem is mentioned only metaphorically. However, as the cyclops—a mythical one-eyed monster—is the only creature mentioned in this poem other than the Great Irish Elk, its mention seems worthy of analysis. Both the cyclops and the Great Irish Elk only exist now in the Irish imagination. While the elk has left physical proof of its presence, the cyclops has only left its impression in the stories of Balor and other myths. However, the creatures are equally relevant to the present and future of Ireland. The makeup of a different land, like the North American prairies, seems oriented toward future use, while this landscape is only interested in the past.