‘Out of the Bag’ by Seamus Heaney is a complex poem which explores the idea of revealing a secret, in this case how children are born, through transitions in time and perspective as the narrator grows up. The different sections of this poem and various references to Ancient Greece result in this poem being relatively challenging to understand and interpret, but also provide a considerable amount of potential for analysis. Heaney was an Irish poet who lived between 1939 and 2013, and was one of the most significant 20th century poets with accolades including the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature and the ‘Golden Wreath of Poetry’ in 2011.
This poem is part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, meaning that it is important to study, understand and revise this poem. This poem was an examined poem in the 2016 AS Level Exam. Click here to see all the prescribed poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection.
Interpreture gives ‘Out of the Bag’ a difficulty rating of 5, meaning that it is deemed to be a challenging poem. The meaning is likely to be difficult for a range of students to initially understand, which then makes analysis of various structure and language devices more difficult. This is then compounded by the fact that this is a relatively long poem compared to others from the collection, and also uses references to Ancient Greece which many students would not be aware of the significance of.
‘Out of the Bag’
The title is a play on the common colloquialism ‘Let the cat out of the bag’ which refers to the revealing of facts and information which had previously remained a secret. This link and understanding would be generally understood by the majority of readers, therefore providing the potential for quite a lot of meaning to be shared through just the title, which is often uncommon within the Poems of the Decade anthology. It also alludes to the idea that the narrator of the poem will gain greater understanding of a topic or issues, making a reader curious to find out whether this will be new information for themselves too.
One of the key visual aspects of the structure of ‘Out of the Bag’ is the way in which different sections are numbered between one and four. This splits up the poem into four distinct sections with the aim of showing the transition in place and time at different stages in the narrator’s life, from childhood through to adulthood. In addition, the sense of separate poems being brought together as one could be interpreted as demonstrating how fundamentally different the narrator’s understanding of the world is between each section, effectively showing transitions between past and present.
Despite the overall length of the poem, the individual stanzas are quite short at only three lines long, and this structure is consistent throughout the poem with the exception of a one line stanza at the end of the first section. The fragmentation of the stanzas could therefore be interpreted as demonstrating the way in which the narrator’s thoughts were often broken, and needed to be pieced together in order to have full understanding of a situation. However, the poem is less consistent when it comes to the number of stanzas within each section, with the first being much longer than the remaining three. A reader may respond to this by considering that the events of childhood have had a big impact on the development of the reader, and this is why a disproportionate amount of the poem is dedicated to this part as it acts as the foundations for the rest.
A complementary effect is created through the free verse structure which places further emphasis on the free-flowing nature of the memories and thoughts being shared as the lack of notable rhyme scheme can be seen as letting the imagery and ideas ‘speak for themselves’. This structure is made more notable through the use of enjambment which occurs between a range of stanzas, as well as few end-stopped lines, which together would make the structure quite notable but also confusing for a reader.
The range of complex vocabulary and ideas within ‘Out of the Bag’ makes it more likely that a reader will feel a child-like sense of being overwhelmed in their lack of knowledge and appreciation of events. Even though the words may not be overly complex on their own, many are infrequently used and collectively they give the impression of complexity, with words such as “scullery” “hypnotist” “forceps” “squired” and others. This helps to build empathy with the narrator, and in turn makes the poem feel much more personal.
In addition to the general complex vocabulary there are also specific references to Ancient Greece and an associated semantic field, including the use of Latin. These techniques are really interesting for the variety of interpretations that they create – firstly that the idea of birth is ancient, even to the extent of being an ‘ancient ritual’. It could be seen again as an additional technique used to make a reader feel confused for their potential lack of knowledge. Alternatively, this could be seen as demonstrating distance (both physical and mental) between the narrator and their appreciation of what is going on.
A key contributor to the strong imagery which the poem provides is the frequent use of adjectives in conjunction with the listing of description, such as “chill of tiles, steel hooks, chrome surgery tools” which could almost be interpreted as giving an ‘overwhelming’ sense of the setting, enabling a reader to fully understand empathise with the narrator. To a certain extent the imagery could seem to contrast with the complex vocabulary, however they can also be seen as working in harmony as it allows for an understanding and appreciation while still maintaining the sense of secrecy and the unknown.
“In his fur-lined collar that was also spaniel-coloured”
Describing the collar as “spaniel-coloured” could be interpreted as recognition that as a child, the narrator didn’t have the knowledge to name the colour specifically and instead uses references to things they know. In addition, the juxtaposition of the pleasant connotations of dogs with “fur-lined” which indicates real fur made from animals is intriguing, which in turn feeds into the idea of ‘creating’ the babies and the brutal descriptions of tools.
“Doctor Kerlin at the steamed-up glass”
Directly referencing the Doctor again, but this time in a different section of the poem, would be effective for a reader because it shows the continued impact of Doctor Kerlin on the narrator’s life. Describing them at the “steamed-up glass” could make a reader picture a kitchen or production area (especially with the reference to scullery on the next line, a type of kitchen area) and therefore link back to the idea of the ‘production’ and ‘manufacture’ of babies.
“Me at the bedside, incubating for real,”
In the final section of the poem, the narrator has transitioned to presumably being an adult and at the bedside of his ill mother. Directly described as being “at the bedside” shows the transition that they have undergone from being unaware outside the room, now directly next to his mother (albeit in a different situation) which can be interpreted as a symbolic movement to the next generation. The use of “incubating” could be interpreted as negative due to the negative connotations of a hospital incubator.
‘Out of the Bag’ Key Themes
- Childhood: The poem directly relates to childhood through the way in which childhood understanding and development is depicted, along with transitions away from childhood. However, unlike other poems in the anthology there is also scope to consider non childhood aspects of the narrator.
- Family: ‘Out of the Bag’ can be seen as a very personal poem through the tracking of the narrator’s childhood and the cyclical feel that it has by going from births to illness (leading to death). Mother and child relationships are also presented in this poem, creating links to others such as ‘On Her Blindness’ and ‘Effects’.
- Past and Present: The transition between past and present is shown through the change from childhood to adulthood, and particularly so in the third and fourth sections which introduce ideas of ageing and the end of life.
Quick Focus Questions
- Analyse the effectiveness of “A bit like the rosebud in his buttonhole.” being on a single line – the only part of the poem which does not conform to the three line stanza structure.
- Would ‘Out of the Bag’ be more or less effective for a reader without references to various Gods and cultures? Use analysis to support your argument.
- The Doctor has been replaced by the narrator in the final section of the poem – what is the effect of this on a reader?
‘Out of the Bag’ can be a difficult poem to understand, but splitting it up into each section may help you to get a better understanding of what the poem is communicating. While it may be a difficult option in the exam, it could be one that pays off as there is lots of potential for interesting analytical and comparative points with another poem, particularly regarding structure with ‘On Her Blindness’ or ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’, or the idea of transitions from childhood in ‘Material’ or ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’.