By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The title poem in Heaney’s debut poetry collection Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ is a deceptively simple poem about how the fascination and curiosity we feel in early childhood gives way to fear and disgust when we reach adolescence. You can read ‘Death of a Naturalist’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
‘Death of a Naturalist’: the title of the poem offers us an immediate ‘way in’ to understanding its theme and subject. Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) describes how any interest he had in becoming a keen scientific observer of nature (‘a naturalist’) was destroyed by his early experiences of frogs in the local ‘flax-dam’ (an area where flax, or linseed, grows in the boggy terrain of Heaney’s native Northern Ireland).
The poem might be summarised as having two clear parts: the first section focuses on the young Heaney’s collecting of frogspawn from the bog and sticking it in jam jars, taking it home and into school so he could watch the spawn develop into tadpoles; the second section shows Heaney’s earlier fascination with the spawn and tadpoles turning to horror and loathing as he revisits the flax-dam and sees the fully-grown frogs, viewing their behaviour as menacing and ‘obscene’.
Throughout ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Heaney uses (loose) blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter. This allows him to speak to us in a personal, natural voice, and we are denied the neatness of rhyme.
Heaney is using the example of the life-cycle of the frogs as a metaphor for human development: the young prepubescent boy feels nothing but curiosity and joy towards the natural world, but with the arrival of adolescence he comes to view the messy business of life – the creation of life, and its early development – as repulsive and frightening.
Why? Well, one reason we might offer is that we suddenly become aware of our own generative ability: we are about to cross the threshold from being children to becoming young men who, from an evolutionary if not also a social perspective, are expected to sire children.
‘Death of a Naturalist’ is thus a poem about coming-of-age, much like the more famous ‘Blackberry-Picking’; but whereas in that other poem the sexual element was at best oblique and tangential (the lusciousness of the delicious berries notwithstanding), in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ Heaney brings sexual awakening and the farewell to childhood innocence together via an altogether more visceral, vivid set of images.
So, in the first of the two stanzas, Heaney offers us a pleasing picture of the scene in which he gathered his frogspawn, ‘every spring’ suggesting that this was a childhood ritual, much like the blackberry-picking in that contemporaneous poem; the whole of nature seems awash with buzzing, humming life, as we’d expect from springtime, with the ‘bluebottles’ and ‘dragon-flies’ and ‘butterflies’.
The language is childlike: Heaney’s teacher ‘Miss Walls’ tells Heaney the scientific name for the ‘daddy frog’, and explains how the ‘mammy frog’ lays ‘hundreds of little eggs’. Even the lack of punctuation in the run-on lines here suggests the breathless excitement of the child learning these new things: look at the last seven lines of this first stanza, which are made up of just two sentences (with no punctuation aside from the full stops).
Then, in the second stanza, we get ‘cowdung’, ‘angry frogs’ which emit a ‘coarse croaking’, a sound which is new to the young poet – and not exactly welcome.
The frogs’ collective croaking forms a ‘bass chorus’ (imitating the deepening of the boy’s voice in adolescence), and the frogs, suggestively, are ‘cocked’ like guns (although the word also carries a phallic suggestion). Their necks ‘pulsed’, and their every moment seems like a threat: the frogs themselves seem like ‘mud grenades’ ready to explode.
Sickened, the young Heaney turns and runs from the scene, convinced that the frogs were intent on ‘vengeance’ for his part in meddling with their world.
Yet it is not quite so stark a division as all this suggests. Even in the opening line of the poem, there is a foreshadowing of the rankness to come: the flax-dam ‘festered’, we are told, in the ‘heart / Of the townland’: the word ‘heart’, when we go back and reread the poem knowing how it ends, throbbing and pulsating with a more physical, bodily sense than was first apparent.
The flax, we are told, had ‘rotted’ there, in ‘huge sods’. True, the language does become more pleasingly salubrious after this warts-and-all scene-setting: the bubbles gargle, but do so ‘delicately’; there’s the beauty of the ‘dragon-flies’ and ‘spotted butterflies’; the spawn itself is almost mouth-wateringly described as ‘jellied’ (yum!).
What is clever about Heaney’s use of imagery in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ is the way the first section subtly hints at the sickening disgust found in the second. Those elements were not absent from the original scene; it’s just that the younger Heaney was too innocent to realise their full significance.
Of course, his reaction at the end of the poem – recoiling from nature and fleeing – is out of proportion, too. He is projecting his own growing awareness of, and discomfort with, his own body (with ‘growing’ being the key word here) onto the frogs. In time, he will learn to come to terms with his own sexuality and, in turn, with adulthood.
But ‘Death of a Naturalist’ powerfully captures the moment when the serpent first enters the Edenic world of childhood – except that for Heaney, it’s a frog rather than a snake found in that flax-dam.