Heaney’s Ugolino is a translation from Dante’s Inferno, xxxii, xxxiii. The poem is written is first person, and comprises four stanzas of free verse. It describes the narrator meeting Ugolino in Dante’s lowest depths of hell. Ugolino is surprised the world doesn’t know his story, but proceeds to tell the narrator nevertheless: ‘why I act the jockey to his mount is surely common knowledge’. ‘The theme of betrayal has appeared in other poems in Field Work, yet guilt, abandonment, and betrayal all reach their precipice in Ugolino’, commented Bloom’s Poets.
The use of the word ‘gnawing’ to describe Ugolino’s actions suggests a very primal and canine image, explored by Heaney throughout the poem: ‘that sinner eased his mouth up off his meal to answer me, as wiped it with the hair left growing on his victim’s ravaged skull’. We can also see this notion when Ugolino eats his children, as well as when he returns to eating his victim: ‘his [Ugolino] eyes rolled and his teeth, like a dog’s teeth clamping round a bone’. Following the description of Ugolino ‘gnawing’ at a person’s head, there is a rhyme of ‘bread’ with ‘head’. This creates and oxymoron, where both things are presented as something to eat, but couldn’t be farther away from another in that respect either. In the third stanza, there is a repetition of the rhyme of ‘head’ and ‘bread’. This further emphasises Ugolino’s and his children’s desperate need for food.
The use of the simile ‘like a famine victim at a loaf of bread’ may create sympathy for Ugolino by presenting his desperate situation. He is then compared to Tydeus, gnashing and feeding on the severed neck on Menalippus. In Greek mythology, in the attack of Thebes, Tydeus was severely wounded by Menalippus, but killed him and ate his brains. Heaney explained in a 1989 interview that he felt Dante gave a “cosmic amplification” to Heaney’s own contemporary world of Irish Catholicism. This mythical idea is seen when Ugolino explains to the narrator that his previous jail is named ‘Hunger’ after him, suggesting he has achieved a mythical status.
From Ugolino’s story, we learn he was a Count and trusted the wrong person, resulting in him being ‘taken, held, and put to death’. From this we can assume that because Archbishop Roger was the one who betrayed him and so caused his and his children’s deaths, therefore he is the one who’s head Ugolino is ‘gnawing’ at.
Ugolino presents the poet with a problem at the end of the third stanza – would Ugolino’s children pleading their father to eat them, justify him eating his children? In his explanation, he says that his children asked him to eat them as it would ease their pain of starvation: ‘father, it will greatly ease our pain if you eat us instead, and you who dressed us in this sad flesh undress us here again’. The action of them offering their bodies creates an image of childlike innocence, therefore fuelling the reader’s anger towards the cause of their hunger – the Archbishop.
Heaney’s use of sibilance puts an emphasis on his berating of Pisa, allowing Ugolino’s sons’ deaths: ‘Pisa! Pisa, your sounds are like a hiss sizzling in our country’s grassy language.’ The narrator judges and seeks revenge on Pisa allowing innocent children to suffer ‘for the sins of Ugolino’. With this almost apocalyptic vision, Heaney forewarns Ireland of its terrible fate if a solution is not found to the present strife.