Comparing Heaney's Portrayal of Suffering in Bye-Child and Another Poem

Categories: Poems
About this essay

In both ‘Bye-Child‘ and ‘Limbo‘, Heaney concentrates mostly on pain and suffering of individuals who have been born into a world where they are not allowed to be seen or acknowledged. In both cases, these individuals are innocent children, who, unfortunately due to the rigid and uncompromising Catholic community, are forced into a life of deprivation and suffering. Bye-Child” is an amazing encapsulation of the thoughts and feelings that Seamus Heaney has towards mistreated and abused children, and the poem, though inspired by a specific case of abandonment of a child, could be seen as Heaney’s attempt to reach out to any child who has had bad experiences in their lives.

Heaney exposes the pain and neglect suffered by those who are unwanted by entering their lives and situations and giving them a voice. In ‘Bye-Child’, the reader is first drawn to a paragraph of information. Pain and suffering is apparent right from the beginning, as Heaney mentions words such as ‘confined’ and ‘incapable’.

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This prepares the reader for the fact that the child is mistreated. Heaney shows his empathy immediately towards the child, and it is clear that he feels strongly towards this inhuman act. We are then reminded of the neglect of the child with ‘a yolk of light’ and ‘the lamp glowed’. Despite these being images of birth and nature at its best, which would normally bring a sense of warmth and comfort, we see that it is coming from ‘their back window’, which instantly reminds us that the young person is not a member of the family, and that his pain and suffering is one that he shares with no one but himself.

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The light is a significant feature in the poem as the boy strives to go into the light but is kept in the dark constantly. His torment is plain as he ‘put his eye to a chink’. This ultimately shows his desperation for light and human interaction with the open world, and emphasises the neglect and maltreatment he has suffered at the hands of the people who should care for him the most. The first line of the second stanza is poignant in Heaney’s description of the child as ‘little henhouse boy’.

This is an ultimate reminder of how innocent and frail the young boy is and how much he needs to be loved and cared for, his ‘sharp-faced’ appearance a constant prompt of his deprivation of care and nourishment. Heaney also mentions that the child is ‘glimpsed like a rodent’. The use of the word ‘rodent’ and ‘my’ here highlights the fact that the boy is constantly on the poets mind, and gives the impression that he is diseased and worthless. This could also be an indication of the imprint he has also left on his mother’s mind, he is pestering her and she finds it hard to forget about him no matter how hard she tries.

In the third stanza, we are presented with a description of the young boy. Heaney describes his as ‘moon man’, which ultimately is a true symbol of his neglect, as he has no other identity. This definitively emphasises the loneliness suffered by the child. The ‘moon’ is also a reminder of the light and darkness battling against each other. Heaney also portrays the boy as ‘kennelled’ and ‘faithful’, which are seen as animal-like descriptions and just shows the lack of knowledge and life experiences the boy has suffered as a result of his making.

The ‘kennelled’ also creates a sense of being confined to a small space, with no freedom to roam and explore; a true reflection of the life of this unfortunate child. The constant descriptions of the young child ‘Little Henhouse boy’ and ‘Little moon man’ have an almost lullaby-like quality. This seems to be Heaney’s attempt at trying not to scare the boy but reach out towards him and has the reader feel sympathy for the other child as we contrast our own experiences to the boy’s.

As young people crave company, the loneliness of the child’s existence appeals to us, and the situation and suffering he faces in everyday life becomes ever more apparent to the reader. Yet again, in the final lines of the third stanza, Heaney accentuates the under-nourished youngster with powerful descriptions ‘frail’, ‘little’, weightless’ and ‘luminous’, a true reflection of the torment the little child has to live with every day, and shows exactly the result of the neglect he has faced.

The word ‘luminous’ also shows exactly how pale the little child is, and shows the reader the darkness he has been forced to live in since he was born. In his poem, Heaney gives the boy ghost like attributes, and is as if he is trying to set his innocent ghost free, ‘stirring the dust’. The ‘dust’ in addition shows the length of time the boy has been hiding away from the rest of the world and is evidence yet again of suffering. In the next stanza, the ‘old droppings’ shows the neglect the boy has endured, he has not even been trained the basic skills in life.

This is also enforced in the ‘dry smells from scraps’, which demonstrates the cruelty and bad treatment on his mother’s behalf. The ‘trapdoor’ moreover gives him a prisoner like existence, yet the little child has done nothing out of place. This is an excellent portrayal of all the weaknesses in the catholic faith of Ireland at the time, that little human beings were the ones that suffered the most. Despite this, the young boy’s mother finds it extremely hard to forget about him, and feeds him ‘morning and evening’.

The ‘morning and evening’ is an admirable comparison of the both personalities, the mother is seen as the morning, and the young boy as the evening, constantly hidden and forced to live in darkness. It also shows the neglect as this is the only recognition the boy has of the time, and days passing by. Heaney begins the next stanza by mentioning that ‘after those footsteps; silence’. This portrays the life of the little child in such simple terms, that the footsteps are his only connection with the outside world, which emphasises his lonely life.

The ‘silence’ is also an indication of how the child is also suffering in silence. Heaney blames his horrific treatment due to religion by the use of religious terms, ‘vigils’, ‘solitudes’ and ‘fasts’. These religious terms indicate just how the young boy has been forced to follow and suffer as a result of the uncompromising rules of his mother’s faith. The ‘uncompromising tears’ also signify how unacceptable his existence is in the eyes of religion, and the young boy has a ‘puzzled love of the light’.

This shows that the young boy knows no more than darkness, and pursues his dreams of finding light. He has nothing to look forward to, and is a true expression of his minimal existence at the hands of his suffering. The final stanza in ‘Bye-Child’ concentrates on the discovery of the child. Heaney mentions that he ‘speaks with a remote mime’. This shows us the result of his cruel neglect, and the fact that he can’t talk proves this. The effect of his neglect is clearly shown in the bodily image of the young child upon his discovery.

His existence is with ‘something beyond patience’, which shows the awful extent of his suffering, as no one can understand his situation, his ‘gaping wordless proof’ a true reflection of the lack of love shown to him. Heaney also mentions the ‘lunar distances’ faced by him, which shows the reader that he does not believe in God and that he worships the moon, which is ironic as it is God and religion that has placed him in this neglectful situation in the first place. The moon imagery also is a suggestion that maybe he doesn’t belong on earth, as he is born out of wed-lock.

The fact that he has ‘travelled beyond love’ gives the idea that he is soon about to die, or that he will find love somewhere, that the love used to produced him was wrong and unacceptable in the harsh religion enforced on the one who bore him. The final sentence is a release, an alternative to strict religion, and, for the first time in the poem, the boy is not at the hands of neglect and suffering. The poem is set into five line stanzas, which shows the monotonous life of the young boy. His life being the same everyday, with nothing changing or looking on a more positive side.

There is a free verse in this poem, and a run on line, which is a reflection of the never ending torment suffered by the young child. The crucial three lines at the beginning of the poem written in italics provides the shock factor, and shows ultimately the extent of the maltreatment of the young boy, which builds the readers emotional involvement as the poem continues. As in ‘Bye-Child’, ‘Limbo’ is another of Heaney’s poems which concentrates greatly on the suffering of a young child at the face of the Catholic faith.

The title immediately shows restraint, confinement and neglect, and prepares the reader for the maltreatment of the young child in the poem. We are introduced immediately in the first line of the first stanza to religious imagery with the ‘Fishermen at Ballyshannon’. Yet again, there is a sense that the cruel act about to take place is due to pressure from religion. It is also ironic in the fact that fish is associated with Jesus, yet even Jesus can not help in this situation. There is major shock factor when Heaney mentions ‘netted an infant last night’.

The young child is yet again described as a fish, and the ‘netted’ shows the brutality of his cruel and unnecessary death. Also, the fact that the child is ‘along with the salmon’ is a clear indication of the suffering felt by the child, and shows that in the uncompromising religion of the country at the time, this kind of act was seen as an everyday activity. Heaney describes the child as ‘an illegitimate spawning’, and highlights the wrong in his making and indeed, in his existence in the Ireland of the time. This is a clear indication, like ‘Bye-Child’ of the suffering faced by children born out of wedlock of the time.

In the second stanza, Heaney describes the act as ‘a small one thrown back to the waters’. This again shows the unwanted presence of the child, and the neglect he faced at the hands of the individual he is supposed to rely on the most, his mother. Heaney takes on the personal approach in the way he uses the word ‘I’, and almost tries to provide a reason for the killing of the young child. He mentions the pain and hurt of the mother as well as the child, that as ‘she stood in the shallows ducking him tenderly’, she was full of remorse and guilt.

The ‘ducking’ could also be associated with baptism, and is ironic in the difference in situation, and the fact that the child is going to Limbo, despite being ducked, as he would at his baptism, he is still going to a place of lost souls and emptiness. In the third stanza, Heaney again mentions the pain of the mother as she carries out the inhuman act of killing her own child, ’till the frozen knobs of her wrists were dead as the gravel,’ This shows her physical pain, numbed by the coldness of the water and highlights the despair she feels. He was a minnow with hooks tearing her open’, this is a reflection of the mother’s emotional pain, and the fact that he is ‘tearing’ yet again shows how she does not want to carry out the act, and is a result yet again of the wrong laws of religion.

It is also a reflection of birth, and that somehow, the child is still emotionally attached to her, she is holding on longer than needed, showing the guilt and suffering she is going through. In the next stanza, Heaney mentions religion as a reason for this unlawful act, as in ‘Bye-Child’. She waded in under the sign of her cross’, this shows the dangerous rules and restrictive religion of the Catholic faith and is a build up of her emotional pain yet at the same time the respect towards her religion and faith. The mother is torn in two, and this highlights the suffering she feels. The true suffering and neglect of the child is then seen towards the end of the fourth stanza, ‘he was hauled in with the fish’. Yet again, the horror of the situation is understated, and the suffering and neglect of the child is washed away in a moment.

However, the fact that he is hauled away with the fish, the fish being a symbol of religion, is ironic as that it was religion that forced his death in the first place. The final stanza in ‘Limbo’ is the most poignant in showing the effect of suffering and neglect on individuals at the hands of religion. Heaney mentions that ‘now Limbo will be a cold glitter of souls through some far briny zone’, The word ‘cold’ shows the lack of comfort of the place at the hands of the neglect, and also the ‘glitter’ shows the goodness of the people who have gone there, a clear indication that they have been mistreated, and that they should be in heaven.

Heaney also mentions the extent of the neglect in the fact that ‘even Christ’s palms, unhealed, smart and cannot fish there’. The extent of the suffering is portrayed in the fact that despite Christ dying for us, he can not help in this inhumane situation and the ‘unhealed’ suggests Christ’s pain and suffering too at the fact that he can not do anything to prevent this from happening.

This is again highlighted in the use of the word ‘smart’, which could be a sharp pain yet again felt by Christ, and reminds the reader that the situation is out of his hands. The true reflection of suffering comes in the final words of the poem, that Christ ‘cannot fish there’, a clear indication that society is being destroyed by rules that were made to protect individuals, but instead are causing them pain and suffering, emotional scars that they will have to live with forever.

The poem is divided into five stanzas, which reflects the ongoing pain and suffering felt by the mother as she is ducking her child under the water. There is also an enjambment in the last stanza, which gives power of emotion in the move between verses. The last line is a crucial one as it describes and portrays the suffering and wrong doing of the situation by also summing the poem up. Each stanza is four lines in length and there is no rhyme, which shows that the situation in Ireland was out of control.

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Comparing Heaney's Portrayal of Suffering in Bye-Child and Another Poem. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Comparing Heaney's Portrayal of Suffering in Bye-Child and Another Poem
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