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Death Of A Naturalist

Seamus Heaney

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Sorry about the length
2002-06-29
Added by: Andrew Mayers
“Death of a Naturalist” is concerned with growing up and loss of innocence. The poet vividly describes a childhood experience that precipitates a change in the boy from the receptive and protected innocence of childhood to the fear and uncertainty of adolescence.

Heaney organises his poem in two sections, corresponding to the change in the boy. By showing that this change is linked with education and learning, Heaney is concerned with the inevitability of the progression from innocence to experience, concerned with the transformation from the unquestioning child to the reflective adult.

The poem opens with an evocation of a summer landscape which has the immediacy of an actual childhood experience. There is also a sense of exploration in “in the heart/Of the townland;” which is consistent with the idea of learning and exploration inevitably leading to discovery and the troubled awareness of experience. To achieve this Heaney not only recreates the atmosphere of the flax-dam with accuracy and authenticity, but the diction is carefully chosen to create the effect of childlike innocence and naivety. The child’s natural speaking voice comes across in line 8; “But best of all”. The vividness of his description is achieved through Heaney’s use of images loaded with words that lengthen the vowels and have a certain weightiness in their consonants;

“green and heavy-headed Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.”

The sound of the insects which, “Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell” is conveyed by the ‘s’ and ‘z’ sounds but also, importantly, acts like a bandage preventing the spread of decay. The images of decay, “festered”, “rotted”, “sweltered” and “the punishing sun” do not seem to trouble the boy in this first section (although they do prepare us for the second section and the loss of innocence); he takes a delight in the sensuousness of the natural world. The onomatopoeic “slobber” effectively conveys the boy’s relish for the tangible world around him. We can further see how he views this world by the words “clotted” and “jellied”; to the boy the frogspawn is like cream and jam, something to be touched and enjoyed.

In section two everything changes. This change is marked by differences in tone, diction, imagery, movement and sound. The world is now a threatening place, full of ugliness and menace. However, it is not the world that has changed so much as the boy’s perception of it. There is still a strong emphasis on decay and putrefaction, but now it is not balanced by images suggesting the profusion of life. The sounds are no longer delicate (line 5), but are “coarse”, “bass” and “farting”. “The slap and plop were obscene threats.” The onomatopoeic “slap” and “plop” slow down the pace here and the full stop gives emphasis to the feeling of threat. The "warm thick slobber/Of frogspawn" has become "The great slime kings" and the transformation is further suggested by the threatening image of the frog as "mud grenades".

So what has brought about this change? It coincides with the boy's learning about tadpoles at school. The teachers use the frogs to introduce a series of facts from sexuality to the weather, in a controlled and painless way. However, the boy is now learning deeper and darker facts about life and his previous sense of mystery and innocent wonderment is replaced by an almost patronising simplifying of the natural world:- “the daddy frog” and "the mammy frog". In spite of the simplicity of this labeling, it does expose the boy to the fact that life is about flux and transformation. His previous unconcerned collection of the frogspawn now fills him with a sense of guilt. Simultaneously occurring
with a growing awareness of his own self (and the awareness of personal responsibility that this brings) is an increasing realisation that life is not always what it seems. As a child he had simply collected the frogspawn, now he begins to reflect on the meaning and consequences of his actions. He feels he will be punished for what he has done, "The great slime kings/Were gathered there for vengeance." He has become aware not only of his own individual existence, but also of that of other living things. Although not explicitly stated, the words "bass", “gross-bellied” and “coarse croaking” remind us that the boy himself is going through changes. Leaving behind the receptive innocence of childhood and a feeling of being at ease with the natural world (the death of a naturalist of the title), the language of the second section expresses the boy's sense of distaste and fear for the physicality and sexuality of adolescence that he is now beginning to experience.

The poem recreates and examines the moment of the child's confrontation with the fact that life is not what it seems. The experience transforms the boy's perception of the world. No longer is it a place for unquestioning sensuous delight. It is a dynamic world of uncertainty. The success of the poem derives from the effective way Heaney builds up a totally convincing account of a childhood experience that deals with the excitement, pain and confusion of growing up.
Long, but it explains well
2002-11-08
Added by: Ben
Apologies to Mr. Mayers I have stolen some of his steam.

Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, on a farm in Castledawson, County Derry, Northern Ireland, the eldest of eight children. In 1963, he began teaching at St. Joseph's College in Belfast. Here he began to write, joining a poetry workshop with Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and others under the guidance of Philip Hobsbaum, who he has dedicated this poem to. In 1965 he married Marie Devlin, and in 1966 year he published his first book of poetry, Death of a Naturalist. His other poetry includes Door INTO the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1979), Selected Poems 1965-1975 (1980), Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), New Selected Poems 1966-1987 (1990) and Seeing Things (1991). In 1999 he published a new translation of the Old English heroic poem Beowulf.

This poem is similar to “Blackberry-picking” in its subject and structure - here, too, Heaney explains a change in his attitude to the natural world, in a poem that falls INTO two parts, a sort of before and after. But here the experience is almost like a nightmare, as Heaney witnesses a plague of frogs like something FROM the Old Testament.

The speaker is arguably Heaney himself as a child, showing his interest in the science of nature, but also showing disgust at nature in the raw.

The poem's title is amusingly ironic - by a naturalist, we would normally mean someone with expert scientific knowledge of living things and ecology (what we once called natural history), someone like David Attenborough or Steve Irwin (crikey). The young Seamus Heaney certainly was beginning to know nature FROM direct observation - but this incident cut short the possible scientific career before it had ever got started. We cannot imagine real naturalists being so disgusted by a horde of croaking frogs.

The poem has a fairly simple structure. The poem is set out in two sections of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter lines). Heaney uses onomatopoeia more lavishly here than in any poem - and many of the sounds are very indelicate: “gargled”, “slap and plop” and “farting”. The lexicon is full of terms of putrefaction, faeces and generally unpleasant things - “festered”, “rotted”, “slobber”, “clotted water”, “rank/With cowdung” and slime kings”. The use of the word ‘farting’ makes the poet seem immature. The sound of the insects which, “Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell” is conveyed by the ‘s’ and ‘z’ sounds but also, importantly, acts like a bandage preventing the spread of decay. The child’s natural speaking voice comes across in line 8; “But best of all”. The vividness of his description is achieved through Heaney’s use of images loaded with words that lengthen the vowels and have a certain weightiness in their consonants;

In the first section, Heaney describes how the frogs would spawn in the lint hole, with a digression INTO his collecting the spawn, and how his teacher encouraged his childish interest in the process. The poet notes the festering in the flax-dam, but can cope with this familiar scene of things rotting and spawn hatching. Perhaps, as an inquisitive child he felt some pride in not being squeamish - he thinks of the bubbles FROM the process as gargling “delicately”. He is confident in taking the frogspawn - he does it every year, and watches the “jellied specks” become “fattening dots” then turn INTO tadpoles. He has an almost scientific interest in knowing the proper names (“bullfrog” and “frogspawn”) rather than the teacher's patronizing talk of “daddy” and “mammy”, and in the idea of forecasting the weather with the spawn. (Not really very helpful, since you can see if it is raining or sunny by direct observation - no need to look at the frogspawn.)

In the second section, Heaney records how one day he heard a strange noise and went to investigate - and found that the frogs, in huge numbers, had taken over the flax-dam, gathering for revenge on him (to punish his theft of the spawn). He has an overwhelming fear that, if he puts his hand INTO the spawn again, it will seize him - and who knows what might happen then?

The second section appears like a punishment FROM offended nature for the boy's arrogance - when he sees what nature in the raw is really like, he is terrified. This part of the poem is ambiguous - we see the horror of the plague of frogs, “obscene” and “gathered...for vengeance”, as it appeared to the young boy. But we can also see the scene more objectively - as it really was. If we strip away the effect of imagination, we are left with a swarm of croaking amphibians. This may bring out a difference between a child in the 1940s and a child in the west today. The 21st century child knows all about the frogs' habitat and behaviour FROM wildlife documentaries, but has never seen so many frogs at close range in real life. The young Heaney was used to seeing nature close up, but perhaps never got beyond the very simple account of “mammy” and “daddy” frogs. The teacher presents the amphibians as if they were people.

The arrival of the frogs is like a military invasion - they are “angry” and invade the dam; the boy ducks “through hedges” to hide FROM the enemy. Like firearms, they are “cocked”, or they are “poised like mud grenades”. Heaney indulges in a riotous succession of disgusting descriptions: “gross-bellied”, “pulsed like snails” (this works only for the reader who dislikes snails, but many people do), “slap and plop”, “obscene threats” (suggesting swear words), “farting” and “slime kings”. This, among other things, points to the prowess of this child’s imagination.

A familiar space being invaded by frogs could be quite dramatic to a small child, but to make it appear that way to an adult would require additional imaginary detail, perhaps this is the young Heaney attempting to EXPLAIN to his patronising teacher, just what he felt. Or perhaps he is attempting to justify or rationalise his fear.

This change in attitude towards life in general coincides with the boy's learning about tadpoles at school. The teachers use the frogs to introduce a series of facts FROM sexuality to the weather, in a controlled and painless way. However, the boy is now learning deeper and darker facts about life and his previous sense of mystery and innocent wonderment is replaced by an almost patronising simplifying of the natural world:- “the daddy frog” and "the mammy frog". In spite of the simplicity of this labeling, it does expose the boy to the fact that life is about flux and transformation. His previous unconcerned collection of the frogspawn now fills him with a sense of guilt. Simultaneously occurring with a growing awareness of his own self (and the awareness of personal responsibility that this brings) is an increasing realisation that life is not always what it seems. As a child he had simply collected the frogspawn, now he begins to reflect on the meaning and consequences of his actions. He feels he will be punished for what he has done, "The great slime kings/Were gathered there for vengeance." He has become aware not only of his own individual existence, but also of that of other living things. Although not explicitly stated, the words "bass", “gross-bellied” and “coarse croaking” remind us that the boy himself is going through changes. Leaving behind the receptive innocence of childhood and a feeling of being at ease with the natural world (the death of a naturalist of the title), the language of the second section expresses the boy's sense of distaste and fear for the physicality and sexuality of adolescence that he is now beginning to experience.

The title is not completely true, Heaney has not lost his love of nature, he has instead had a change in his attitude towards life in nature itself, he is realising that that farm is not the place for him.

The encounter with the frogs as a child has cut short the possible scientific career before it had ever got started. It is difficult to imagine real naturalists being so disgusted by a horde of croaking frogs. This fits in well with other Heaney poems, he is showing us how he was not born to work on the land, he can't dig, he can't plough, he gets upset when the blackberries start rotting and he is frightened by a lot of frogs. He realises where his talent lies and tell us this through the poem ‘digging’, as much as he looks up at his father and grandfather’s skill as farmers, he opts to become a writer

2003-11-14
Added by: Amr EID
this poem is wonderful, it speaks of growth. the process of growth heaney undergoes. Here nature is described graphically. the first stanza is written in a childish tone, while the second stanza is written in an adult tone; to show the change heaney underwent.
By Michael
2004-01-06
Added by: Michael Washington
I think this poem is stupid. Who would really care about what Heaney was afraid of and his fascination of frogs. You might wonder why I did this if i dont care, but because its part of school work to read 18 poems by him.

Reading and understanding of these poems dont help anyone, its also kind of sad about somethings he has written. Like a little 2 year old child to cry when his black berry rotted or whatever.

But i think giving an explanation to each of these poems after writing it is better so unfortunate people like me and others can understand what the hell is on about most of the time, took me hours to figure out all the poems and be able to answer questions on them.

I think Andrew Mayers has explained it pretty damn well, bet Heaney didnt even think of half that stuff, just said yea yea thats what i meant. Good explanation Andrew, its useful
Above comment
2004-01-15
Added by: Toby Gould
What a stupid comment Michael. You truly dont appreciate good poetry do you? I also have to do this for school, but anyone with a half a brain could figure out what Heaney was going on about. Also - poets do do things for a reason: nothing happens by accident. Until you win the nobel peace prize, I suggest you shut up and criticise something else.
@ Michael Washington
2004-03-23
Added by: Ippus
You are sad. You do not appreciate art forms and have a narrow stream of thought going through what you call a "brain".
Heaney is intelligent unlike you. These are poems, not pollitical essays. He cannot write all that in a poem, however he uses specific words and phrases to convey the thought and brings home to readers who actually have half a brain what he is trying to tell us all. It's not clear cut, and if all you can do is answer your school questions through none other than other people's opinions and interpretations of the poem, I truley believe you have no right to judge him nor his poetry.

Personally I didn't like Heaney at first. He's a poet, BO-RING~
Then we began to anotate his poems and talk about the true meaning hidden in those words. Andrew and Ben analysis' the poem so well XD the idea of the loss of innocence and all really makes sense ^^.
I Love heaney's other poems too, especially Mid-term break. Was such a moving poem it was >
2004-04-04
Added by: Magali
How can anyone dislike the works of such a brilliant man. After all, he has won the nobel prize for Litterature, which should be convincing enough that he does know what he is talking about. One always says that perfection is not of this world, however in a minute and precise way, a poem like Death of a Naturalist of Poem is perfect, it has a sense of love, affection, philosophy, and it creates meaning through sound, small. It rhymes, thus, what more does one want? Who are you kidding? Personnally Seamus Heaney and Shakespeare are the only reason why I attend school! Enjoy IGCSE this year
2004-05-09
Added by: Jon
I find a lot of poem quite complicated and meaningless, but I find I can relate to Heaneys poems unlike others. For instance, the Gillian Clarke poems are quite technical and compact. Heany makes his poems good by bringing about distinct sounds and images.

Cheers for the essays bays, helping me with my revision for my GCSE's.
Micheal Washington
2004-05-27
Added by: Khadifa Vohra
Hey, guys. this is my first time here, and i have to say, ANdrew helped me a lot. However, i do have to say micheal you don't really understand the beauty of poetry. i myself won an award for poetry, which then was published in a book. Without Heaney, we would not have uderstood the trueness of nature, and its vengance against us. so before, you criticise, sit read and then tell me, do you really hate it?
Thanks
2004-09-12
Added by: Coral
Thank you so much for an interesting analysis of the poem! i don't really think its fair to be slagging Micheal though, i don't want to be presumptuous but he just sounds a bit frustrated with an essay. The first two entries - thank you guys so much! Could his ideas maybe be taken to a more general level, that although he is showing his own loss of innocence, it happens to every child when they grow up. Got to say i had to generlise my essay because otherwise i felt it wan't related to Heany's ideas, which are very strong, so much as him having a whine about a lousey childhood.

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