In Catholicism limbo is the temporary place of souls which are purified of sin. It is also the permanent place of the souls of unbaptized children who are excluded from the vision of Christ.
After reading this poem it would be easy to rail against the Catholic Church for its stern and dispassionate rejection of unbaptized infants from a permanent place in Heaven, but I think society in general must share the blame for its lack of support of the innocent.
It is too easy to pass judgment upon women particularly who find themselves in untenable positions, giving birth to children outside of a stable and supportive marriage. These are the very souls who most need the help of society. In societys defense, I would like to think we are becoming more accepting of children born out of wedlock as they used to say, but nonetheless even today most single mothers have a hard life ahead of them.
This may be a good place for one of my ongoing rants. Until you and I insist on the education of all women and the acknowledgment of the advantages of birth control, this poems story will sadly stay a current one.
Heaney tells the story that reaches to the very heart of the reader.
Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning.
A small one thrown back
To the waters. But Im sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly
Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.
She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be
A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christs palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.
The story in this poem leads the reader to ask as many questions as it answers. What has happened to the mother who makes such an unspeakably horrible choice to drown her newborn son? What becomes of the mother who with freezing hands quietly drowns him?
The infant is found by fishermen who have been netting salmon. What shock has leapt through their souls as they discover what lies in their nets?
And what religion can be so stern as to teach that illegitimacy is so unacceptable that a mother would choose to destroy the outcome of an liaison outside the accepted parameters of marriage?
The mother must forever remember her child in limbo, one of a cold glitter of souls. Even Christ Himself feels his wounds and cannot draw near the drowning sight as though he never intended such an act to be performed under the sign of His cross.
The poem calls to mind one experience I had when I was teaching. A beautiful 17 year old student of mine became pregnant during the school year and when she began to show the administrators expelled her, adding one more obstacle she would have to overcome, that of a reduced opportunity for an education. The most I could do was box up my childrens baby clothes and give them to her.
She did have the tenacity to attend night school to earn her high school diploma. I often think of her and hope she has a good life with a child who would be 30 years old now. I hope he is a great comfort to his mother, but the odds are against that, arent they?