Out of the Bag

Seamus Heaney

In a long, complex autobiographical poem, Heaney meditates on medicine, sickness and health. The four sections create a sequence of memory, beginning and ending with childbirth, where the Doctor is the key figure. Doctor Kerlin was a real figure, well known to Heaney who was the eldest of nine children born to his parents.

1. The poem starts with a simple statement of a child’s view of childbirth, the only single sentence line of the poem:

‘All of us came in Doctor Kerlin’s bag.’

Most sentences in the poem are long, weaving through a number of enjambed lines which recreate the memories. Here the memory is childish, the doctor presented as a magician who produced babies from his bag. The traditions of a magic show run throughout the language of this section, as Dr Kerlin would ‘disappear’ before returning with his bag ‘empty for all to see’, while he would lead his audience ‘like a hypnotist’. There is also a flavour of the nursery rhyme in the rhythm, assonance and rhyme of ‘Those nosy rosy, big, soft hands’. These methods combined strongly evoke a child’s wondering perspective, observing carefully but not understanding. There are other indications of that poetic observant eye too, like the lining of the bag being ‘The colour of a spaniel’s inside lug’ or how it is ‘gaping wide’ when ‘the trap-sprung mouth’ is ‘Unsnibbed’. The language is precise, but the metaphor of the mouth still communicates the child’s perspective.

A child’s world is innocent, but not immune to imaginative horror. It is notable that after the mature painterly image of ‘a Dutch interior’, only the second end-stopped line of the poem finishes on ‘forceps’, a more chilling glance at medical tools. Although the following lines are softened by the imagery and sibilance of the water ‘Not plumping hot… but soft,/ Sud-luscious’, the final image of Doctor Kerlin is far more disturbing. Kerlin seems self-important as he is ‘squired’ into his ‘silk-lined… camel coat’, but the real effect is on the young boy’s imagination as he catches his gaze. Using a Classical term which foreshadows the second part of the poem, Heaney terms the doctor ‘Hyperborean’, a race from the far north in Greek mythology, and through the ‘peepholes’ of his eyes, a metaphor which suggests secrets in the doctor’s mind, the boy has an image of the baby-maker in a laboratory which sounds like a torture-chamber, with ‘swabbed porcelain’ tiles and ‘steel hooks’. There is ‘blood’ in the ‘sawdust’ by the walls, while body parts hang above. This is far from the cheerful innocence of ‘nosy rosy, big, soft hands’, especially when his imagination’s eye casts upwards and sees

‘A toe, a foot and shin, an arm, a cock’.

Even more gruesomely, that tiny ‘cock’ is paralleled with ‘the rosebud in his buttonhole.’ Kerlin the magician has become a much darker figure.

2. The second section has an immediately different tone; Heaney shifts suddenly form a child’s macabre imagination to the intellectual educated man of letters, apparent in the names, the Classical references and the use of Latin. While the tercet form is maintained, tonally it seems a different poem, but Heaney makes subtle connections between the memories. He refers to two of his predecessors as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, Peter Levi and Robert Graves, giving them the title ‘poeta doctus’ to mark their scholarship in both poetry and the Classics. Notably, he does not grant the same title to himself. He cites Levi’s and Graves’ learning about healing and mythology – Asclepius is the Greek god of healing, and devotees would approach his shrine as people today would visit a hospital. Graves parallels this with the Roman Catholic shrine of Lourdes in southern France, where the Virgin Mary is meant to have appeared and which is a shrine for the sick to this day. In both instances, it is faith which heals, rather than medicine. His own contribution is to suggest that poetry itself can also heal. Heaney has said:

‘cures can in a certain sense be ‘coerced’ – by operations, by antibiotics and the like, but there are others that occur slightly mysteriously – though the intervention of a healer or a doctor or a prayer. The good that poetry does is akin to that kind of intervention’.

In his own memory, Heaney recalls a visit to Epidaurus, home to Asclepius’ shrine, and realises ‘That the whole place was a sanatorium’. He implies a parallel between the mysterious healing through the mind and poetry – both work on the conscious and the subconscious (‘’incubation’/ … meaning sleep’ which brings revelation (‘epiphany occurred’), but of course this is not guaranteed; this cure cannot be ‘coerced’.

His memory links two examples of his own such epiphanies through a long, wandering sentence, the first participating in Catholic ritual at Lourdes, carrying the thurible which contains the burning incense. It is already a sacred event, and he ‘nearly fainted from the heat and fumes’, in one sense being brought into an extreme state and loss of himself – ‘groggy, shadowing myself’ – in the service of his God. He draws a parallel between this moment and another at Epidaurus where he is also ‘groggy, shadowing myself’, bending to pick grass from the healing spot as a memento. His hallucination takes him back to Doctor Kerlin, who re-enters the poem as a dreamlike figure, not making babies, but creating adult figures by drawing them in condensation on a window – ‘dot faced men’ and ‘women with dot breasts’ – just the kind of window-drawing a child might do, with ‘droopy sausage-arms and legs’. Then the baby-making doctor reappears, with the language strongly recalling the first section of the poem, with ‘generous suds’ and ‘soapy big hygienic hands’ as he brings the ‘baby bits all… together’. The childish perception of Doctor Kerlin is still in the adult mind and is linked with the healing myths of ancient Greece and Lourdes.

3. Those strands of grass picked at Epidaurus are the focus of the shortest section of the poem. They are mementoes not for himself but for friends at varying stages of cancer treatment, a symbolic gesture of wishes for health and healing. He is taken by the mythology and atmosphere of the place; he wishes to remain at ‘the temple of Asclepius’ to be served by the god’s daughter Hygiea, which is the root of our word hygiene. Interestingly, he describes her as ‘The haven of light’ and an ‘undarkening door’, the opposite image from Doctor Kerlin, who is said to ‘Darken the door’ ominously in stanza 4.

4. The last section in this sequence of interconnected memories takes Heaney and the reader back to the start, to childbirth, with the young lad standing by his mother’s bed after the arrival of one of his siblings, giving the poem a cyclical structure. Ceremony is there, with the special ‘wedding present’ sheets used only for special occasions, and the boy seeking for understanding – ‘incubating for real’, to pick up the term from section 2. He recreates his mother’s exhaustion as she ‘closes/ And opens her eyes’ – she is in  trance-like state too – before speaking in a ‘hoarse whisper of triumph’. Her lines of speech with which the poem ends take us right back to the image of Kerlin the magician, producing babies from his bag, and probably a contributory source of that belief:

‘And what do you think
Of the new wee baby the doctor brought for us all
When I was asleep?’