Death of A Naturalist
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet born in 1939, and is the eldest of nine children. Growing up on a farm, a theme that permeates much of his work, his adolescence was blighted by the tragic death of his 4 year-old brother Christopher in a road accident. This is reflected in several of his poems, including the poignant ‘Mid-Term Break’. He also faced the issue of being a Catholic in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland. After graduating from Queen’s College, Belfast, with a First Class Honours degree in English Language and Literature, his poetry came to public attention with the publication of the critically acclaimed volume ‘Death of a Naturalist’ in 1966. By the end of 1979, he had published a further five volumes, and was appointed as the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University for five years. In 1995, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth’. After suffering a stroke in 2006, he published his twelfth collection, ‘Human Chain’ in 2010, and continues to work today.
‘Death of a Naturalist’ is both a description of Heaney’s experience with nature as a boy, and a metaphor for the loss of his childhood innocence, as he looks back wistfully at his youthful naivety. He is fascinated by the frogspawn and tadpoles of the flax-dam’, but becomes repulsed by a horde of croaking frogs in their maturity. It is similar to another of Heaney’s works, ‘Blackberry-Picking’ in subject and style, as both centre on the change in Heaney’s attitude to the natural world, scaling the heights of pleasure before a crucial mood-swing to plumb the depths of revulsion.
The poem opens with a vivid, yet ambivalent description of a flax-dam that ‘festers in the heart of the townland’, much like a putrefying core would. He notes this, but is not disgusted by it, as he knows of the jewels of frogspawn that are concealed within. Using assonantal para-rhyme in the alliterative phrase ‘green and heavy headed flax had rotted there’, he harnesses their slow, substantial sounds to convey the decaying atmosphere. This is further enhanced by description of flax as being ‘weighted down by huge sods’, while the flax-dam is personified as it ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’. Using pathetic fallacy to portray the sun, the poet imagines it as an oppressive, brutal ruler, and this authorial nudge hints at the negative mood swing that is to come. Appealing now to our sense of hearing, he employs striking auditory imagery such as the oxymoronic ‘gargled delicately’, before describing the bluebottles as weaving ‘a strong gauze of sound around the smell’. He achieves the effect of creating pleasant connotations of light, gentle fabric from a revolting source. The noise of the bluebottles is hazy anyway, but so intense is their presence at the flax dam that their dense sound has become embodied in a material.
In a typical feature of Heaney’s narrative, he goes into character and adopts the voice of his boyhood self: a pure, untainted vessel, unaware of the monstrosities that are soon to corrupt his mind and alter his perception of nature. Beginning with the tinkling phrase ‘dragon-flies, spotted butterflies’, he captures the sense of wonder using childish expressions such as ‘best of all’. Heaney as a child imagines the frogspawn as ‘warm thick slobber’, the onomatopoeia subtly encapsulating the gelatinous texture of its subject. In two long, uninterrupted sentences, comprising unsophisticated clauses linked by ‘and’, he skilfully imitates his innocent enthusiasm, using enjambement to emphasize this. There is no description, only a simple, almost nostalgic recitation of his actions: he ‘would fill jampotfuls of the jellied specks’, before beginning to ‘wait and watch’ until at last, to his delight, the ‘fattening dots burst into nimble-swimming tadpoles’.
He relates how his teacher has taught them about the lifecycle of a frog, proudly demonstrating his knowledge about how the ‘daddy frog was called a bullfrog, and how he croaked’ (an premonition of what he will later experience) and how ‘the mammy frog laid hundreds of little eggs’, taking on the role of a keen naturalist. This awe is emphasised by the start of a new line for the word ‘frogspawn’, before an interest verging on scientific is expressed through the idea of forecasting the weather by the colours of frogs. However, the first section ends abruptly with the words ‘in rain’, indicating a forthcoming negative change.
Even the opening word, ‘then’ signals a change in thought, an omen of what is to follow. The line ‘one hot day when fields were rank’ almost imitates the sound of marching footsteps, as we are introduced to the ‘angry frogs’ that have ‘invaded the flax-dam’. Throughout the remainder of the poem, a martial theme is apparent, demonstrated by ideas such as ‘poised like mud grenades’, ‘great slime kings’ and ‘gathered there for vengeance’: to Heaney, these animals appear like belligerent warlords, determined to retaliate over the earlier theft of their frogspawn. They have already conquered the air, which is ‘thick with a bass chorus’, a masculine threat contrasting both with Miss Walls’s gently portrayal of the frogs, and the gauze before. Using the striking simile, ‘their loose necks pulsed like sails’, he depicts their grotesque animation, showing to the reader how shockingly alive they appeared to him. In the concluding line, even the frogspawn itself is nightmarishly endowed in the imagination of the child. Previously, he had peacefully collected the frogspawn; now, he fears that if he dips his hand into the water, the ‘spawn would clutch it’: a monstrous image that must have served to terrify the young Heaney. Indeed, he then ‘sickened, turned, and ran’, leaving the beasts behind. These lines echo ones from another of his poems, ‘An Advancement of Learning’ (‘my throat sickened so quickly that I turned down the path in a cold sweat’), which is also concerned with the less appealing side of nature, in this instance, rats.
The reader sympathises with his disgust at the surprising scene that he is confronted by, and Heaney uses lavishly indelicate onomatopoeia such as the deliberately crude ‘cocked on sods’, and ‘slap and plop’, which are compared to ‘obscene threats’: to him, this assault on the flax-dam is both explicitly offensive and hideously nauseating. This is also indicated by his choice of words for the action and sound of their heads, which are described as ‘farting’, another rude, indecent comparison. There are also religious undertones, as the infestation of frogs appears almost to be a Biblical plague from the time of Moses.‘Death of a Naturalist’ takes the form of two contrasting parts, set out in blank verse: the first section conveys his enchantment with nature; the second demonstrates his disillusionment, as he begins to see the frogs not as his playful allies, but as a menace. The previous security the poet feels changes into threat, mirroring the transition of the tadpoles into frogs, and his own self-development. The loss of innocence is a consequence of growing up, but mars a previously blissful existence, and ironically, it is the very abundance of nature that kills the budding naturalist within Heaney.
In this poem, Death of a Naturalist, Heaney conjures a richly evocative image of the countryside, focusing in on this flax dam where all the action takes place. He creates such an sensory journey that even the most uninitiated city dweller feels a keen sense of the beating heart of the countryside. Through the eyes of a child we sense their intrigue and excitement as he sees nature up-close and watches as tadpoles become frogs. But the poem also depicts a loss of innocence as the poet/speaker sees the harsher side of nature and feels threatened and frightened by the end. You can read the whole poem here.
Death of a Naturalist Context
Born in 1939 County Londonderry (or Derry as it is more often referred to by Nationalists) Seamus Heaney is often known as a ‘farmer poet’ since many of his earliest poems are based on and around the farm and neighbourhood where he was raised. Death of a Naturalist appeared in his first major anthology of the same name, which was published in 1966. Heaney died in 2013, aged 74.
Flax is the plant from which linen is manufactured. Sown in the spring, the plants were then harvested in summer. The plants were then bundled into sheaves and placed in a flax dam to ‘rot’. The purpose of this was to rot the stems and expose the fibre within from which linen is made. A flam was a large pond, usually fed by an adjacent brook. The linen industry thrived in Northern Ireland until the mid-twentieth century, when the advent of synthetic fabrics diminished its appeal. The word ‘townland’ is a colloquial term used to describe the farm and surrounding fields and land owned by the farmer.
Structure and Form
The poem is set out in two stanzas with a distinct volta in the second, signalled by the word ‘Then’ to indicate a change in the poet/speaker’s relationship with nature. It is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) throughout.
Death of a Naturalist Analysis
Although this stanza focuses on the child’s excitement, there are warning signs in the first line that there is a darker element to this poem. An ominous tone is created in by the use of the words ‘festered’, ‘rotted’, ‘sweltered’ and ‘punishing’. Already there is a sense of nature at its most unforgiving, but rather than alarm the child it seems to captivate him. He watches and listens intently and doesn’t seem repulsed as the ‘bluebottles/Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.’ The juxtaposition of the bubbles which ‘gargled delicately’ makes it seem like a chemistry experiment. This somewhat gruesome theme is continued by the simile ‘like clotted water’; a macabre image which makes us think of blood and vampires: all fascinating to a child.
This excitement is conveyed by the superlative phrase: ‘But best of all was the warm thick slobber of/Frogspawn’. The ‘slobber’ is doubly thrilling as not only is it and ‘gunge-like’ in texture, but it actually transforms into something else, which he documents in detail, tracing their evolution from ‘jellied specks to ‘fattening dots’ to ‘nimble swimming tadpoles’. Through the eyes of the speaker/poet we almost turn the pages of a science book. The alliteration in the phrase ‘I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied specks’ creates a jaunty tone and creates a sense of the child’s delight, as his investigations are supported at home and in school by Miss Walls. He is encouraged in his pursuits as sets them around the house and at school. Childish vernacular is used as the teacher ‘Miss Walls’ explains about the ‘mammy’ frog and the ‘daddy’ frog. The colloquialism of ‘mammy’ firmly places this poem in an Irish context. The simplistic language and the repetition of ‘frog’ in this stanza’s final sentence echoes a child reporting what he has learnt in school that day.
Literary Devices in Stanza One
In the first stanza Heaney makes such extensive use of alliteration and assonance that the language almost feels heavy and sticky, to emulate a hot summer’s day on the farm. The process of rotting the flax took time, and this is suggested by how the poet has drawn out the vowels, for example in the long ‘e’ sounds of ‘green and heavy headed’ and the proliferation of ‘o’ sounds in line six referring to the bluebottles. The Irish countryside is damp and this sense of wetness is suggested by the phrase ‘huge sods’. It is impossible to read this verse quickly, until the childlike patter of the last sentence.
His use of enjambement and caesura also contribute to this slow moving style. There is a sense of him sitting and watching as events unfold, as illustrated in line thirteen.
While the poem has no end rhyme in the lines there is an abundance of internal rhyme and repetition, which again create a denseness in the writing.
The change of tone occurs abruptly with the word ‘Then’. After the languorous language of the first stanza this verse begins with a harsh monosyllabic line: ‘The one hot day when fields were rank/with cowdung’. Both ‘rank’ and ‘dung’ sound cacophonous with harsh consonance. The word ‘dung’ is an Anglo-Saxon word for cow manure, used colloquially in Northern Ireland.
He describes the frogs as an army, coming back to seize what was theirs. This is indicated by the word ‘invaded’ and reinforced by words used to suggest battle: ‘cocked’, ‘poised’ and ‘grenades’. The words ‘coarse croaking’ sound abrasive and unpleasant, and they form a ‘bass chorus’. Again the proliferation of ‘o’ sounds combined with the harsh ‘c’ show that this is eerie and grating on the child’s nerves.
Again he makes use of graphic visual imagery as we can almost feel the pulse in the toad’s neck in the simile ‘like a sail’. He continues to use language that a child would find entertaining, and it reads in part almost like a cartoon with the onomatopoeic ‘slap’ and ‘plop’, except here they are juxtaposed beside the words ‘obscene threat’. This should be a spectacle to a child, but is instead frightening because of the number of toads and their perceived indignation at human intrusion.
Like in the first stanza, his use of run-on lines and caesura pauses seems to slow the verse down, as though the child is rooted to the spot, taking it all in. The hyperbole of the line the ‘great slime kings’ could sound humorous, but placed immediately after ‘I sickened, turned, and ran’ we feel the child’s terror. This is confirmed in the final lines when he states with certainty: ‘I knew/That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.’ Once more the line is sharp with monosyllabic words.
The whole poem could be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same about the countryside after this encounter.