Death of a Naturalist published by Faber in 1966 is Seamus Heaney’s inaugural collection. These early poems demonstrate accessibility, vitality and talent. Subsequent collections over more than half a century will confirm Heaney’s place at the top of the premier league of poets writing in English.
The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in Death of a Naturalist. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one, not intended primarily for his reader; accordingly, there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney, the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable.
There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is, the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward; then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.
The following introductory notes, textual surveys and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.
Heaney’s ‘annus mirabilis’:1966
The publication of his first collection of poetry, the birth of his first child, Michael, after a year of marriage to Marie (née Devlin)and his earlier appointment to Queen’s University, Belfast as an English lecturer make 1966 a significant year.
In the later collection, North of 1975, Heaney’s Singing School reflects on this earlier stage of his life, particularly his search for a publisher to bring his poetry to a wider audience than that of his close circle of poets, friends and academics:
Then Belfast, and then Berkeley.
The success of that ‘search’ was to result in the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966.
First approached by Faber in 1965, Heaney agreed to provide a manuscript. He was encouraged to concentrate on the things that he ‘knew’, for example around his first family home at Mossbawn. The subjects and settings he chose are reviewed following the commentaries in Afterthoughts.
The achievements of this and subsequent collections would lead Heaney to increasing celebrity and national and international Prizes, including The Nobel Prize for Literature (The Swedish Academy elects just one literary laureate annually from across the globe) awarded in 1995.
Heaney’s main concern at this early stage, one realises, has less to do with winning prizes and more to do with expressing his loves, interests, feelings and preoccupations in as perfect a range of poetic forms as he can develop.
To achieve this Heaney experiments with a wide variety of formats and rhyme schemes in his first collection; these are summarised at the end.
Death of a Naturalist is the ‘starting-grid’ on Heaney’s road from parochial to international recognition. The collection received The Somerset Maugham Award of 1967.
Challenges and dilemmas of the years prior to publication:
- In 1960, Heaney is 21 years of age; he is single and will marry five years later;
- he has enjoyed all the rural Irishness of his 1940s and 50s farming background, first at Mossbawn then at The Wood near Bellaghy to which the family moved after the loss of brother, Christopher in 1953;
- thanks to educational opportunities he made excellent use of a privileged, largely ‘classical’ education; at school he was particularly successful at Latin;
- he possesses all the uncertainty of young men with bright futures seeking to make their way;
- he needs to earn a living; he is interested in ‘teaching’;
- he has broken tradition by entering a different world from that of his rural farming background: he graduated from Queen’s University, Belfast (1961) enjoying its contingent undergraduate and postgraduate city life; he is potentially middle-class and in search of a career; he is the first writer in the family;
- he is already aware, perhaps, of the possibility of using an interim ‘teaching’ position as a springboard to full-time writing;
- he is already seeking to confirm the legitimacy of his own language, place and voice (Michael Parker in Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.41);
- he possesses a deep sense of his nationality plus the recognition that he belongs to a particular social and ethnic grouping: the Northern Irish Catholic minority;
- reflecting later on this aspect, he suggests that he was subject to the usual old Northern Ireland reminders that I’d better mind my Fenian manners (Dennis O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones p. 65);
- tracing his evolving responses to the political situation back to childhood roots, he states: Even though there was no sectarian talk or prejudice at home, there was still an indignation at the political status-quo (ibid p.66); and later: there was no very intense Republican motive operating within me or my family, more your typical nationalist minority stand-off from Unionists (ibid p. 86). His feelings would appear to harden after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972;
- in the early 60s, however, he is in need of friends and mentors of all political and religious shades, who share his interest in the creative arts and will help him along the way;
- Though it is not a principal theme in this collection, MP refers to Heaney’s acute sense of the sacred (p.45);
- Heaney comments on the sudden acceleration in his progress via 3 major developments in 3 years, into poetry, into marriage and into lecturing, making 1966 his annus mirabilis (Dennis O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones p.68).
Along the road to publication:
- Heaney opted for teaching and became influenced by Michael McClaverty, Head of the Ballymurphy school where he was sent to practise;
- 1962-3 marked a turning point: Heaney seems not to have come terms with Secondary teaching so registered for a post-graduate course at Queen’s University; October 1963 brought him a lecturing post in Further/Higher Education;
- Heaney will contribute seven poems to Death of a Naturalist that celebrate his relationship with Marie Heaney (née Devlin, born Sept 1940). Michael Parker in Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet offers a profile (p. 47): the couple met in October 1962 at a party in the Queen’s University Chaplaincy; her family possessed a strong Irish Catholic identity but without sectarian bigotry or prejudice; her strong sensual and instinctual nature made her an ideal partner for Heaney (ibid 48); they married in August 1965, honeymooned in London; their first child, Michael, was born very shortly after the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966.
- some time after July 1962 Heaney responded to a letter from a Philip Hobsbaum who had encountered some of his poetry; this was an important step. Hobsbaum had taken up a lectureship at Queens’ University. He sought to set up a poetry group akin to one he had previously established in London. His search for talented and creative people drew together eighteen or so individuals whose weekly meetings began in November 1963;
- named the ‘Group’ it assembled at the Hobsbaums, 5, Fitzwilliam Street, Belfast; meetings contained readings and critical responses to the poetry of other members; this brought Heaney his first exposure to sharp (even envious) poetic minds and offered him lessons in ‘trust’ (the Viking voice in his later poem North would spell out the importance of trust for Heaney’s poetic development); fellow group member, Michael Longley judged these first poems ‘basic’;
- an archive of ‘Group-sheets’ records the dating of various Heaney poems of the period;
- the Group brought acquaintance and friendship with Irish Protestant voices (such as Michael and Edna Longley) not previously part of his upbringing;
- his wider circle of contacts came to include other creative artists, for example, Irish surrealist painter Colin Middleton to whom In Small Townlands is dedicated;
- Michael Parker in Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet summarises Hobsbaum as an immensely important figure in Heaney’s development as a poet … another literary ‘father’ …a loyal and generous friend (p. 49)
- As a result of literary contacts in London made via Hobsbaum, three Heaney poems were accepted by The New Statesman in December 1964; as a result Faber and Faber requested a manuscript but felt that what Heaney sent them was a bit light for a book. They held the door open for the manuscript submitted by Heaney in Summer 1965 and accepted it. Heaney was ‘in business’.
- Heaney’s reflection on the ‘publication’ phenomenon is illuminating: The autobiographical creature (i.e. himself being interviewed) begins to be implicated in the textual masquerade (i.e. his published poems); he refers to a composite who has written the book and sounds like yourself (Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones p. 61) ;
- Michael Parker’s (MP) Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet refers to the warm and sensuous pleasuring in words and experience one associates with Heaney;
- MP notes the elegies on ancestors and neighbours (p.37);
- MP notes Heaney’s sense of affinity and continuity with his cultural forebears (p.61)
- for MP Heaney’s poetic career began with acts of reclamation as purposefully he dug ‘inwards and downwards’ …. able to achieve a poetic resolution to inner tensions as he confronts the familial, parochial and national past (p.62;)
- the observed and recollected facts of his early rural experience are conveyed in a language of great sensuous richness and directness (Neil Corcoran in The Poetry of Seamus Heaney p.1);
- the exuberant performance of the present moment of the poem…frequently protects it from the emotion common in poems which recollect childhood experience, nostalgia (ibid p.7).
Comments in italics are drawn from: Neil Corcoran’s (NC) The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, A Critical Study (Faber 1998); Michael Parker’s (MP) Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet (MacMillan 1993); Dennis O’Driscoll’s (DOD) Stepping Stones (Faber 2008). Page references are included where appropriate