The Tollund Man

By Seamus Heaney


The Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney: A Poetic Exploration

“The Tollund Man” is a captivating poem by Seamus Heaney, first published in his 1972 collection “Wintering Out.” This poem is part of a sequence that reflects Heaney’s deep engagement with the bog bodies of Northern Europe, which were remarkably well-preserved remains of prehistoric men found buried in peat bogs. Heaney, a Nobel laureate from Northern Ireland, is known for his evocative poetry that often intertwines personal, historical, and political themes. 😊

In “The Tollund Man,” Heaney transmutes a bog body discovered in Denmark in 1950 into a symbol of sacrifice and suffering that resonates with the contemporary violence in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The poem is a poignant reflection on violence, sacrifice, and the search for meaning in the vestiges of the past.

Meaning of The Tollund Man

Opening Section

  • In the opening lines, Heaney directly addresses the Tollund Man, intending to visit his preserved body in a museum. This section sets the tone of reverence and personal connection, treating the ancient figure as a martyr whose sacrifice holds lessons for the present.

Mid Section

  • The middle of the poem shifts to reflect on the rituals and the landscape that might have surrounded the Tollund Man’s life and death. Heaney draws parallels between the sacrificial rites of the past and the sectarian violence in his own time, suggesting a continuity of human sacrifice.

Concluding Section

  • The poem concludes with a somber reflection on the poet’s journey to the land of the Tollund Man. Heaney speaks of travelling through a foreign landscape, metaphorically searching for understanding and reconciliation in his own conflict-ridden society.

In-depth Analysis

Dissecting Each Stanza of The Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney

Stanza One

  • Themes and Symbols:
    • Sacrifice and Sanctity: The poem opens with a tender, almost religious devotion to the Tollund Man, suggesting his body in the peat is akin to a saint in a shrine.
    • Connection Across Time: Heaney expresses a desire to “stand a long time” looking at the Tollund Man, bridging the historical gap through personal reflection.
  • Literary Techniques:
    • Direct Address: Heaney speaks directly to the Tollund Man, creating an intimate tone that draws the reader into a personal encounter.
    • Imagery: Vivid images of the man’s “mild pods of his eyelids,” “pointed skin cap,” and “peat-brown head” evoke a striking visual connection.

Stanza Two

  • Themes and Symbols:
    • Violence and Peace: The juxtaposition of violent death and the peaceful expression of the Tollund Man highlights the paradox of human sacrifice.
    • Historical Echoes: Heaney hints at the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland, suggesting a disturbing continuity of sacrifice.
  • Literary Techniques:
    • Symbolism: The “bridegroom” symbolizes the union of life and death, a marriage that sanctifies and completes its tragic but necessary cycle.
    • Allusion: References to “toll” and “germination” suggest both a price paid and new beginnings, enriching the theme of rebirth and cyclicality.

Stanza Three

  • Themes and Symbols:
    • Journey and Pilgrimage: Heaney portrays his travel to the Tollund Man as a pilgrimage, seeking wisdom from the ancient sacrifice to understand contemporary violence.
    • Spiritual Seeking: The land that “could dole out” endless sacrifice is both a geographical and a metaphysical landscape, reflecting the endless human capacity for violence and redemption.
  • Literary Techniques:
    • Metaphor: The journey is a metaphor for the search for meaning in the face of brutality, both historical and current.
    • Enjambment: The flowing lines mimic the ongoing journey and the continual search for answers that transcends physical and temporal boundaries.

Poetic Devices used in The Tollund Man

In “The Tollund Man,” Seamus Heaney utilizes a variety of poetic devices to enrich the text and deepen the connection between past and present, life and death. Below is a table outlining the top 10 poetic devices found in the poem:

Poetic DeviceExamples from the Poem
Alliteration“peat-brown head” — The repetition of the ‘p’ sound enhances the musical quality and focuses on the imagery.
Assonance“bridegroom to the goddess” — The repetition of the ‘oo’ sound softens the tone and adds a lyrical quality.
EnjambmentThroughout the poem, this technique helps in maintaining a conversational and flowing narrative.
Metaphor“bridegroom to the goddess” — Compares the Tollund Man’s sacrifice to a marriage, suggesting sanctity and ritual.
SymbolismThe Tollund Man himself symbolizes a sacrifice that transcends time, linking past sacrifices to present violence.
Imagery“His last gruel of winter seeds” — Vividly portrays the last meal and connects it to death and renewal.
PersonificationThe bog is given life-like qualities, deepening its role as both preserver and destroyer.
Simile“His nipples are like the points of nails” — Sharpens the image and the sensation described.
AllusionReference to Iron Age rituals and broader historical contexts for understanding human sacrifice.
ToneThe solemn and reverential tone underscores the poem’s themes of memory, sacrifice, and reflection.

The Tollund Man – FAQs

What inspired Seamus Heaney to write ‘The Tollund Man’?

  • Seamus Heaney was inspired by the discovery of the Tollund Man, a naturally mummified corpse found in a Danish bog in 1950. Heaney’s interest in this figure was part of a broader fascination with bog bodies, which he saw as symbols linking the past to the present, particularly the violent history of Ireland and the ritualistic sacrifices of Iron Age Europe.

How does ‘The Tollund Man’ reflect on contemporary issues?

  • ‘The Tollund Man’ draws parallels between the ancient ritual of human sacrifice and the modern-day violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Heaney uses the poem to explore themes of sacrifice, violence, and the cyclical nature of history, suggesting that contemporary conflicts are not isolated but part of a continuum of human behavior.

What literary techniques does Heaney employ in ‘The Tollund Man’?

  • Heaney uses a variety of literary techniques including symbolism, imagery, allusion, and metaphor. Each of these contributes to building the thematic depth of the poem, linking the physical presence of the Tollund Man with broader themes of sacrifice and redemption.

Why is ‘The Tollund Man’ considered an important poem?

  • ‘The Tollund Man’ is considered important for its deep thematic exploration and its innovative blending of personal, historical, and political elements. Heaney’s ability to evoke powerful images and emotions while addressing complex societal issues makes this poem a significant study in both literary and cultural contexts.

Can ‘The Tollund Man’ be read as a political poem?

  • Yes, ‘The Tollund Man’ can be read as a political poem. It subtly addresses the issues of sectarian violence and the historical cycle of sacrifice and suffering. While primarily reflective and elegiac, it comments on the human costs of conflict, making it politically resonant, especially within the context of Irish history.

The Tollund Man Study Guide

Exercise: Analyzing Poetic Devices in a Verse

Verse Provided: “Some day I will go to Aarhus To see his peat-brown head, The mild pods of his eyelids, His pointed skin cap.”


  1. Read the verse carefully.
  2. List all the poetic devices you can identify in this verse.
  3. Explain briefly how each device contributes to the overall impact of the verse.


  1. Alliteration:
    • “peat-brown head” — The repetition of the ‘p’ sound emphasizes the texture and color, enhancing the vivid imagery of the Tollund Man.
  2. Imagery:
    • “peat-brown head”, “mild pods of his eyelids”, “pointed skin cap” — These phrases paint a detailed visual picture of the Tollund Man, making him seem almost alive and present.
  3. Metaphor:
    • “mild pods of his eyelids” — This metaphor subtly suggests the closed, seed-like form of the eyelids, evoking a sense of potential life or rebirth within the deathly context.
  4. Assonance:
    • “mild pods” — The repetition of the ‘i’ sound softens the auditory quality of the line, contributing to a gentle, serene mood as the speaker contemplates the face.

This exercise helps students to engage deeply with the text, enhancing their understanding of how poetic devices function to build imagery, set tone, and evoke emotion.