19 pages 38 minutes read

Seamus Heaney

Act of Union

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1975

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Poem Analysis

Analysis: “Act of Union”

The first four lines of the first sonnet lay out two parallel narratives that run the entirety of the poem. In Line 1, the male speaker refers to the movement of the fetus in the womb. Lines 2-4 compare this to a bog subject to heavy rainfall, leading to a “bog-burst, / a gash breaking open the ferny bed” (Lines 3-4). The reference to the gash is also to the woman’s body that opens to deliver the baby. A bog consists of wet, muddy ground with acidic, peaty soil formed by partial decomposition of vegetable matter. There are many bogs in Ireland; indeed, the country is known for them, so these lines immediately suggest Ireland and classify it as feminine. Ireland has long been presented as feminine in literature and mythology, so Heaney is on well-established ground.

The second quatrain (Lines 4-8) continues to mingle the pregnancy narrative with the allegory. The male speaker, who is metaphorically England, presents the woman’s back as metaphorically being Ireland’s eastern coast: She is lying with her back to him as he reaches out to her from England. (The speaker can be seen either as a man observing the development of the pregnancy in his wife or lover or metaphorically as England itself, observing the effects of England’s historical imperial dominance of Ireland.