Jan 102012

Death of an Naturalist

A youngster blessed with a vivid imagination is open to disturbing dreams. Flooding the text with sense-data, Heaney describes how an early enthusiasm for nature within his Irish townland was turned into a nightmarish event generated by a youngster’s guilty perception of crime-committed and a foreboding of potential punishment. The poet’s mature, adult eye recalls himself as a boy growing up.

Heaney devotes the first nine and a half lines to a natural process. The language is rich in alliterative and assonant effects ( flax-dam festered … heavy-headed) with a vocabulary of fermentation (festered … rotting … sweltered … smell). Initially none of the unpleasant odours distract his observation; later however they will contribute to the perceived threat to his well-being.

He is recounting an All year flax-process and the natural phenomena that accompany it: gases are given off: bubbles gargled delicately; insect life abounds: bluebottles/ wove a strong gauze of sound …/ dragon-flies, spotted butterflies.

The boy goes on to reveal an important annual event for him (starting in March or April) and his studied interest in what transpired: the warm, thick slobber/ of frogspawn … like clotted water. The innocent and unsuspecting collector in him would fill jampotfuls of the jellied/ Specks for the classroom and for home so as to observe a second natural process: wait and watch until/ The fattening dots burst into nimble-/ Swimming tadpoles.

The poet mimics the voice of the Primary teacher, her Irishness somehow revealed in the local usage of mammy: having explained the Biology in the simple way that a young class might require for understanding she ventures beyond science adding an old-wives’ tale: You could tell the weather by frogs too/ For they were yellow in the sun and brown/ In rain.

The boy’s nightmare took shape one hot day when the fields were rank/ With cowdung. His enhanced awareness of unpleasant odours acts as a trigger: both the flax-dam and his imagination are invaded by larger-than-life angry frogs … coarse croaking that I had not heard/ Before, causing the boy to take cover (I ducked). The volume of sounds (The air … thick with a bass chorus) persuades him that he is militarily outnumbered. The frogs are big (gross-bellied), confident (cocked/ On sods) and use all their natural defences to scare: their loose necks pulsed like snails*.

The boy feels increasingly threatened by their potential aggression: The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat/ Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. He loses courage and is routed: I sickened, turned and ran.

The crime he sensed was to have deprived the frogs of their young and summoned them in search of retribution: The great slime kings/ Were gathered there for vengeance. The innocent ‘naturalist’ that he was, was no more, leaving him in no mind to repeat the act: I knew/ That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

* ‘snails‘: an alert student pointed out that, unlike the Faber re-print of 2006 that I was using as a basis for the commentary, other editions including the ‘Opened Ground’ anthology (supported by Heaney’s own recitation of the poem) printed the word as ‘sails’. The image of the spinnaker sail of a racing yacht bulging and contracting in the wind provides a much more compelling comparison with the bloated throat of the frog swelling and shrinking like a beating pulse than links to the snail family. Thank you Paul (DF)

  • The poem is divided into 2 extensive sections: the first of 21 lines describes a sequence of innocent events; in the second section (13 lines) imagination takes over;
  • lines largely based on 10 syllables with a single exception; their arrangement as sentences with enjambed lines offers ways of delivering emphasis and pace to the text; there is no formal rhyme scheme;
  • It can be fun to explore the possibilities the poem offers to the reader as a piece of music to the ear; imagine background sounds that enhance the content: woodwind and strings might reflect the sensitivity of the lyrical descriptions, the timeless aspects of a child’s existence, tempered somehow in the score by the rancid smells that will later contribute to the nightmare; once the fear sets in, however the mood changes, lends itself to use of  brass instruments and a crescendo leading to a scherzo accompanying the boy’s flight;
  • the end- piece needs a musical sound to reflect the surreal idea of vegetation grabbing the thief’s wrist so that the frogs can get him;
  • alliterations in pairs or sets: voiceless labio-dental [f] in flax/ festered; sibilant [s] in sods/ sweltered/ punishing/ sun/ sound smell/ slobbered/frogspawn/ loose/ pulsed/ snails/ gross/ frogs/ sods; inter-labial [w] wait/ watch; voiced alveolar [dʒ] jampots/ jellied; voiceless velar plosive [k] coarse croaking;
  • assonant effects: [e] heavy/ headed; [ɒ] watch/ dots;[ɪ]) nimble/ swimming; [ɒ] one/ hot; [æ] rank/ angry/ flaxdam; [ɒ] frogs/ cocked/ sods;
  • vocabulary of unpleasantness: festered/ rotted/ slime/ sweltered/ smell/ rank/ dung/ farted;
  • use of a triple verb phrase each shorter than the previous to describe the build-up of flight,: sickened, turned … ran;
  • all the senses represented: sound, smell (taste is never far away from smell), touch, sight all activated;
  • use of synaesthesia weaves touch (the texture of gauze) with hearing: a gauze of sound; synaesthesia describes one of the senses using vocabulary associated with another (e.g. a loud tie).


  • The poem presents a sensual evocation of Humanity’s violation of Nature (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.57);
  • this and the next poem expose the dark underside of childhood (ibid p.38);
  • a fall from innocence into experience (ibid p.6);
  • a code of ethics stirs within a youngster;
  • the poem ends with an explicit statement of new knowledge acquired during the incidents described (Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney p.6);
  • the poem contains the terrible knowledge of the threat implicit in apparently benign natural forms (ibid p.6)… in fantasy;
  • referring to mud grenades (above)Heaney suggests how easy it is for the reader to visit sociological motives on what, for Heaney, was an entirely phonetic prompt, a kind of sonic chain … the connection between the ‘uh’ sounds of ‘thumb’ and ‘snug’ and ‘gun’ that are at the heart of the poetic matter rather, perhaps, than containing some kind of sexual pin in them just waiting to be pulled (Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones 83);