The Poetic Dead

In 1957, Sylvia Plath was visiting the Archaeological Museum in Cambridge. She examined a a stone coffin from the 4th century A.D. which contained the remains of a skeleton of a woman, a mouse and a shrew. The ankle-bone of the woman was been slightly gnawed by the two rodents. It was these remains which inspired her poem “All the Dead Dears”. Now, the remains which inspired this poem and so fascinated crowds through the past two centuries are back on display. The sarcophagus, with its inner lead coffin, was part of a grouping of high-status burials and other Roman artifacts. It was discovered during the Victorian period by builders who were clearing land for housing at Arbury, located on the outskirts of Cambridge.

Plath’s Gnawed Remains, via Guardian

Rigged poker -stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.

These three, unmasked now, bear
Dry witness
To the gross eating game
We’d wink at if we didn’t hear
Stars grinding, crumb by crumb,
Our own grist down to its bony face.

How they grip us through think and thick,
These barnacle dead!
This lady here’s no kin
Of mine, yet kin she is: she’ll suck
Blood and whistle my narrow clean
To prove it.

As I think now of her hand,
From the mercury-backed glass
Mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother
Reach hag hands to haul me in,
And an image looms under the fishpond surface
Where the daft father went down
With orange duck-feet winnowing this hair —

All the long gone darlings: They
Get back, though, soon,
Soon: be it by wakes, weddings,
Childbirths or a family barbecue:
Any touch, taste, tang’s
Fit for those outlaws to ride home on,

And to sanctuary: usurping the armchair
Between tick
And tack of the clock, until we go,
Each skulled-and-crossboned Gulliver
Riddled with ghosts, to lie
Deadlocked with them, taking roots as cradles rock.

This isn’t the only poem inspired by archaeological remains. Seamus Heaney wrote about the bog men found throughout Ireland. As said that as a child he was fascinated about the preservative powers of the bog, which we now know to be due to the lack of oxygen in the environment. The bog men have been found throughout Ireland since the 17th century and most date to the Iron Age. In his poem, “Graubelle Man”, Heaney discusses the man recovered from a peat bog near Graubelle, Denmark in the 1950’s. The body is an adult male dating to the late 3rd century BC, and basedon the evidence of his wounds, he was most likely killed by having his throat slit open.

Heaney’s Graubelle Man, via Wikipedia

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

Works Cited

Kennedy 2012. Gnawed Roman Skeleton that Inspired Sylvia Plath on Display. Guardian.

Pringle 2009. The Poet and the Bog Body. Archaeology Magazine

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