How does Heaney explore cruelty, pain and neglect in Limbo and Bye-Child

The poems, “Limbo” and “Bye-Child”, were both written by Heaney, depicting the message of child cruelty and neglect from both the mothers and childs view. In, “Limbo”, the poems show a mother who has to commit infanticide, whereas in, “Bye-Child”, the child is kept alive, but hidden away and neglected. Both mothers have resorted to these acts in the name of religion, as both children were born illegitimately and if known to the world, their mothers would both be victims of persecution and shunned from society. Limbo”, use’s a mixture of fishing and religious vocabulary throughout the poem.

In contrast, “Bye-Child”, is partly written in a cold, newspaper style text. Initially, first impressions may lead the reader to believe that Heaney wants to show the cruelty, pain and neglect experienced by the child victims, but as you delve deeper, we can see that the pain experienced by the mothers is always shown. The title, “Limbo”, refers to the Catholic meaning of the place where unbaptized children go; it is neither Heaven, nor Hell. Bye-Child”, is told through the rememberment of a newspaper report.

The opening paragraph in the style of a newspaper article, the child’s horrific life ordeal has been documented in a newspaper and is being remembered from the article. “Limbo”, opens with, “Fishermen at Ballyshannon, netted an infant last night”. The opening line, informs us that an infant has been found in the waters. The use of the word, “netted”, shows how unimportant the child is, it has just been hauled in with the fishes, “Along with the salmon”, just another catch for the fishermen.

Heaney then goes on to state exactly why the child came to this morbid fate, he was an, “Illegitimate spawning”, the mother became pregnant out of wedlock, but the negative use of, “spawning” poses the imagery that the child was something grotesque to society and unwanted by religion and social surroundings. This therefore enhances the question of what horrible acts people resort to in the name of religion. In contrast, the opening of, “Bye-Child”, opens with a direct newspaper report style paragraph.

The child was, “discovered in the henhouse”, which first gives a shocking impression of neglect and cruelty; why would someone lock their child away? It carries on to give a possible answer, “She had confined him”, which shows that maybe the child was put away for his own safety, again, from society and its religious persecutions; he was not put away for punishment and cruelty, therefore the thought of this horrible act transforms into a act which does not now seem as harsh. The first stanza of, “Bye-Child”, describes enclosed child and his surroundings.

We are reminded subtly of his environment, “A yolk of light”, yolk relating to the henhouse. The victim has no name, referred to only as, “The child”, his pain is mirrored here in when he puts his, “eye to a chink”, trying to catch a glimpse of the outside world, Heaney here showing how the child has to be hidden from the world, but also protected from it. The issue that the act is not only done in cruelty, but for protection is raised here. The second stanza of, “Limbo”, takes a sarcastic tone with, “But I’m sure”.

It is said in a conversational way, remains sarcastic, but still gives a feel of empathy towards the cruelty inflicted upon the child, but also towards the pain and cruelty which is being forced upon the mother; the fact she has to give up her baby for the sake of her religion. The mothers horrid actions are now put in place, “Ducking him tenderly”, an ironic line, illustrating the mother drowning her child but in a soft, tender way. The whole imagery of her drowning the child by means for death, related back to murder, she is almost baptizing him in the waters he is being ducked into.

The adverb, “Tenderly”, is used here to also show the love the mother has for her child, despite what she is being forced to do, this memory will forever be encrusted in her mind. The neglect is again shown in, “Bye-Child”, the child being now given an inhuman name, “Little Henhouse Boy”, a title given to the child from the newspapers. The child is then described physically and mentally. He is, “Sharp-faced as new moons”. A sense of emotional sympathy is put in here. “Sharp-faced”, meaning he is intelligent, he has been able to stay hidden for all those years, but he knows no better. His world consists of staying hidden, nothing else.

His gaunt physical appearance, “… As new moons”, the child has seen only darkness, no sunlight. Therefore, his appearance has become pale, no colour in his face. It can also be said that his paleness can be compared to a spiritual ghost, that he is so pale, white, just like a ghost, he is invisible and non-existent. He has a, “frail shape”, due to the fact that he has suffered to years of neglect and proper nourishment, resulting in him being weak. The idea that society has no care for child of abuse and in these situations is shown in, “Bye-Child”, “Remembered, your photo still, glimpses… on the floor of my mind”.

The poet is struggling to remember the photo of the child from the newspaper article, members of societies views are shown here, as they just, “glimpse” through newspapers, and then it is forgotten. The memory is on the, “floor” of their minds; the terrible story has been digested by the reader, but then discarded and forgotten. This again shows the neglect of the child, not through the mother, but through society, they know about such situations, but do not take any actions towards helping the situation. The actual actions of the mother are morbidly described in, “Limbo”, “Frozen knobs of her wrists, were dead as the gravel”.

The water so cold and freezing, her wrists now frozen, she carefully place’s the child under the waters icy breath. However the pain of the mother is shown here, “He was a minnow with hooks, tearing her open”, the child again related back to no importance, described as a fish, but, “tearing her open”, informs us that the mother is feeling some sort of hurt towards what she is being forced, inside, the fact that she has to kill her own flesh and blood is tearing her apart, a pain which cannot and will not be erased from her memory and emotion.

Furthermore, where the innocent child in, “Limbo”, is compared constantly to an unimportant fish, the child of innocence in, “Bye-Child”, is also shown to be of no importance, even though he is alive. He is described as being, “Weightlessness”, giving the impression of near nothing, the feeling of non-existence. Pity is represented here, description of the child being, “Kennelled and faithful”, words associated with dog. The child is treated like an animal with a certain amount of care, although treated somewhat like an animal, he is still faithful in staying hidden.

The relationship between the mother and son in, “Bye-Child”, is at last introduced, when describing how the son is fed, “Scraps she put through your trapdoor”. The mother being described, showing the ideas of neglect, cruelty and pain, as, “She”, there is no relationship between them. The boy has no idea who she is, no concept of what a mother is. A mother’s job is to love and cherish her child, but this mother can only feed him, she has no relationship with her child, which brings different points of views. Firstly, the painful factor, she is refused a relationship with her child, but then in contrast, the neglect and cruelty factors.

The mother did not have to trap her son in a cruel and unjust way; there were other options such as just abandoning him. Towards the end of, “Limbo”, the act is done, “She waded in under, the sign of her cross”. Religion is openly brought in here; the act was done in the name of her religion. Heaney does not condemn the religious faith, but the fact that the act was done under and in the name of religion. Also, towards the end of, “Bye-Child”, the religious meaning is also openly shown. A religious list of three is used, “Vigils, solitudes, fasts”, to emphasize the fact that the mother has to pay penance for her crimes.

The child is, “Unchristened”, similarly to, “Limbo”; the child will also go to Limbo when he dies. The suggestion of the cruelty of religion is shown in, “Bye-Child”, when Heaney states, “A puzzled love of the light”. The literal meaning of the mother’s silhouette coming towards her son, but also a metaphorical sense is brought in. The, “Light”, represents religion. The, “Puzzled”, state represents the confusion of why religion is forcing the mother to prison her child. Finally, “Limbo”, concludes with an absence of emotion when stating, “A cold glitter of souls”, a deathly image, the child has died and been put to rest.

Heaney clearly states his message in the last two lines, “Even Christ’s palms, unhealed, smart and cannot fish there”. The constant reference to the fish vocabulary is known now. Christ himself was known as the, “fisher of men”. Such brutal acts are done in the name of Christ, He never wanted such acts to be performed under his name, but still such things go on today in Christ’s name, things which Christ would not want. “Bye-Child”, concludes with the child described as a, “remote mime”, he is so distant and hidden from society, he cannot speak out against the neglect he is experiencing.

Throughout the whole poem, many references to space and moons are mentioned, “New Moons, “Little Moon Man”, “Luminous”, the last with, “Lunar distances, travelled beyond love”. These are all used to justify what the mother is doing. She loves her son, the “Lunar distances”, emphasizes the endless love between the child and mother. Although she wants to justify her actions, she can’t. Like I mentioned, there were other options with regards of what to do with her illegitimate son, but she chose a long drawn out experience for him to endure, it could not have been done for cruelty, but the mother justifies it as necessity.

She could have suffered being shunned from society, but instead she makes her child suffer. In conclusion, Heaney states in, “Limbo”, that humans are destroying themselves. In relation to Christ and his, “Palms, unhealed”. Christ wanted peace; it will not happen as long as people keep committing vicious acts in his name. Another painful message is known through, “Bye-Child”, the fact that society lets these things happen, they know of them, but still they do not enough to help end cruelty towards children and the reasons they are being subjected to such pain.

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