Seamus Heaney’s ‘Limbo’ uses metaphors to compare the child being drowned by its mother to a minnow; this comparison exacerbates the original sorrow felt for the mother in the poem. The poem overall uses dark imagery and dehumanising language to create this sympathy in the first place, and the metaphor which compares the child to a minnow adds to this sympathetic feeling and thus the overall meaning. Minnows are small fish which are typically used for bait, and indeed are present in Ireland. The poem describes the child as “a minnow with hooks” hence the metaphor. The “hooks” could refer to those found on fishing lines, as indeed these fish are used for bait. Or they can be emotional hooks, felt by the mother. The poem continues to say the child is “Tearing her open”; this is a reference to the mother drowning her. There is no literal tearing; this is a continuation of the metaphor, and this affirms the previous preposition that the “hooks” are emotional and are “Tearing” at her heart. This metaphor uses diction which creates heart wrenching imagery and intensifies sympathy felt by the reader towards both mother and child.
The minnow comparison is continued in the poem as the child is left at sea by their mother. The child is later “hauled in with the fish” as though he is one of them, and the poem uses dehumanising imagery to give the impression that he indeed is a minnow and not a human. Earlier in the poem the child is “Netted” by a fisherman. The word “Netted” is dehumanising; it is a reference generally to catching fish, minnows, and not human beings. This disturbingly inhumane language, sprouting from the original metaphor, compels the reader to feel sympathetic.
This sympathy is manipulated by Heaney to portray his themes in the poem concerning the intense bond between mother and son. Yes, the child is drowned by the mother, but the inhumane and horrific imagery created in the process indicates to the reader that the drowning is not in the typical nature of a mother. Instead, it is in their nature to love and to care for their children, which is why the child is characterised as “a minnow with hooks” and why drowning the child was “Tearing her open”.