A Closer Look at Seamus Heaney’s “Limbo”

I put this together a while back and thought I’d share it again.

by Seamus Heaney

Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of the cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

The poem leaves out quite a lot of information that we readers have to supply for ourselves:

1. What is limbo? The poem doesn’t define it. If we don’t know, we need to look it up.

2. Where is Ballyshannon? Again, the poem doesn’t tell us and leaves it up to us to find out if we don’t know.

3. Why is a mother who kills her illegitimate child described in sympathetic terms (she ducked him “tenderly”; her actions were “tearing her open”)?

4. Why is God powerless to reach limbo and do anything about the souls there?

In unofficial Catholic doctrine, infants’ limbo is specifically set aside for children who die without being baptized. They can’t enter heaven since they haven’t been baptized, but they do not deserve to go to hell through no fault of their own. Thus they are “left in limbo” (that’s the origin of the phrase).

Even more significant to the ultimate “meaning” of this poem is Ballyshannon’s location. It lies in County Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, right next to British-controlled Northern Ireland. While County Donegal is in Ulster Province, it is one of three counties in that province that are not part of Northern Ireland. And Northern Ireland, of course, has been consigned to British rule while the rest of the country is an independent republic.

Add this to the mix: Northern (British) Ireland is predominantly Protestant, while the (independent) Republic of Ireland is predominantly Catholic … but there is a large Catholic population in Northern Ireland whose express wish is to be free of British rule… and who have violently opposed such rule. (In the late 1960s, conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and involving British forces, erupted into three decades of violence in Northern Ireland which claimed over 3,000 lives and caused over 50,000 casualties. After the signing of the “Good Friday Agreement” in 1998, Northern Ireland became largely self-governing and the violence effectively ceased. “Limbo” is a poem in Heaney’s book Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966.)

Who may the woman killing her infant represent? Who may the infant represent? Who may a powerless God represent?

Where do the poem’s sympathies seem to lie?

Heaney uses language so effectively that we really don’t care what the poem is about as we read: the strength of the language carries the poem forward. We just can’t stop reading.

The poem is in the tradition of the alliterative verse of Old English poetry that Heaney loves (he has even translated THE Old English poem of all Old English poems — Beowulf). Here, Heaney adapts the form for his purposes by using two (and occasionally three) strong accents per line instead of the traditional four, thus:

FISH-ermen at BALL-y-SHA-nnon
NET-ted an IN-fant last NIGHT
a-LONG with the SAL-mon.
an ille-GI-timate SPAW-ning

(or: an IL-le-GI-timate SPAW-ning)

a SMALL one thrown BACK
to the WA-ters. but I’m SURE
as she STOOD in the SHA-llows
duc-KING him TEN-derly …

And so on. This pattern creates a somber rhythm, sparse and pointed, almost martial, which is re-enforced on a line by line basis as they march by. That rhythm comes through as an entity in itself; it has a life of its own. It is not just language: it’s poetry.

But note that to avoid creating a too-predictable (and thus boring ) pace, Heaney uses three strong accents instead of two in 6 of the 20 lines, including the first two and last two lines of the poem. Such variations can really make things interesting to the ear.

(I remember Gwendolyn Brooks say at a reading that it took her a while to learn that writing in perfectly metered lines was something she needed to avoid. None other than Shakespeare was criticized because he didn’t stick slavishly to form, and for my money, no one comes even close to his mastery of English.)

Also in the tradition of Old English alliterative verse, Heaney uses alliteration (and assonance, for good measure) to make the language come alive. Note the “sh” sound in the first line, along with the “er,”/ “men,” “ba”/”sha” pairings; how the “t” sound of “at” leads to the second line’s “netted,” “infant,” and “night;” the repetition of the “l” sound in “along,” “salmon,” and “illegitimate” in the third and fourth lines; and the various shades of “ah” in “Ballyshannon,” “salmon,” “spawning,” “small,” “back,” “water,” and “shallows.” And on and on.

Also note the length of Heaney’s sentences and how he mixes short and long ones to create tension. The first two sentences set the scene; they are short (3 and 2 1/2 lines respectively). The third sentence is an emotional whopper, and it goes on for 6 1/2 lines. Then the poem ends in a series of 4 short, emotionally charged sentences. Note how those last four sentences, relative to each other, are long, short, long, short (2, 1, 3, and 2 lines respectively). That micro-level of variety keeps four short sentences next to one another from becoming boring

The tension created by the sentences (short, short, long, short, short, short, short) suggest to me a build-up and release of emotion that leads to the phrase “tearing her open.” Having reached that painful image in a slow, long sentence, the poem then unpacks its emotional wallop in four quick “jabs” which are not so much a second release of emotion as a further increase of it. The last four sentences are fast, emotionally charged, even violent. There is no catharsis here, only further pain. They work so well because they follow that long third sentence and are in stark contrast to it.

    • flemingway61
    • September 18th, 2015

    Really great analysis here. I’m currently reading up on a lot of material about Limbo (Dante, Bosch etc.) for a piece that I’m writing. This has been very helpful 🙂

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