Seamus Heaney - Death of a Naturalist - Poetry Analysis

Foreword (Death of a Naturalist)

Foreword Death of a Naturalist published by Faber in 1966 is Seamus Heaney’s inaugural collection. His early poems demonstrate accessibility, erudition and vitality. Subsequent collections over more than half a century will confirm Heaney’s place at the very top of the premier league of 20th century 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 […read more….]

Turkeys Observed

Turkeys Observed Heaney provides an object lesson in transposing close observation into verse. Shop-window displays of regulation Christmas fare set up a chain of associations in the poet’s mind leading from the ‘v’ of the Diviner’s hazel stick in the previous poem to the ‘v’ of a turkey’s wishbone! Heaney laments the sorry sight of turkeys slaughtered in cold blood for Man’s Christmastide self-indulgence. He describes them blue-breasted, royal in death, lying on show in the butcher’s indifferent mortuary; akin to huge sea creatures or ditched planes, they lie in shop after shop beached bare on the cold marble slabs reduced as turkeys to wearing only immodest underwear frills of feather. Hung beef has grandeur, retaining Some of the smelly majesty of living; to Heaney the presence of a side of beef ensures that the blood and flesh are not ignored. No such dignity amongst poultry: the turkey cowers in […read more….]


Trout The rivers and streams close to his boyhood home are very much part of Heaney’s landscape. In this poem he takes advantage of his huge interest in Nature pausing on arched bridges to acquaint himself with life-forms in the stream below. The first 5 lines are composed around two contrasting verbs: one of inertia, the other of movement. At one moment the fish’s latent power Hangs (as if suspended in the water) like a fat gun-barrel waiting to be triggered; next it slips effortlessly like butter down the throat of the river. From deep in the water the trout accelerates to the surface in search of food. Heaney loads the text with sniper and naval imagery: muzzle/ bull’s eye/ picks off/ torpedoed (there is no escape from the pace and accuracy of the device). The trout’s non-friction design (slips) is facilitated by the texture of the water’s depths smooth-skinned […read more….]

Cow in Calf

Cow in Calf In an environment familiar to a farmer’s son, Heaney reflects on regeneration. The speaker weighs up the cow’s immense belly. The impression It seems is that, in pregnancy, she had swallowed a barrel her undercarriage: slung like a hammock from front to rear. He needs to be physical to shift a cow in her present condition from the position where she is eating. The sound of smacks administered is somehow different with a calf inside: solid, dull sounds like slapping a great bag of seed; smacks so weighty that his own hand takes the punishment, tingling as if strapped, accompanied by dull, distant echoes that plump like a depth charge/ far in her gut. We learn of other signs of pregnancy: the growing udder resembles a wind instrument with its bagpipe’s windbag and drone, producing an accompaniment to her lowing. Heaney reflects upon the perpetual loop of […read more….]


Waterfall Observation of the power and shape of falling water presents Heaney with the challenge of transposing the visual turbulence and disorder of a waterfall into words. His poetic eye settles initially above the main fall, relative calm replaced as the pressure of water builds until the stream consumes itself as the burn drowns steadily its own downpour. Gravitational pull is injected, textures and light-effects are added in a helter-skelter of muslin and glass; unseen ridges cause skids that crash and generate visible soap-like suds. The moment of plunge into the void with its contrast of currents at once acceleration and braking that affect the water’s momentum is as irresistible as late medieval paintings and accounts in which the sinful are deposited into the fiery furnaces of Hell Like villains dropped screaming to justice. The water’s rebound is likened to an athletic glacier …/ reared into reverse and the stream’s […read more….]

Poor Women in a City Church

Poor Women in a City Church A study of inner city devotions is inspired by the sight of Catholic women in an unheated Belfast church. The poem creates a canvas that recalls classical paintings of groups of worshippers in like circumstances. Heaney concentrates, first, on light effects: small wax candles melt to light, casting varying shadows as they flicker in marble or creating pinpoints of light on the curvature of shiny, metal surfaces: bright/ Asterisks. The eye-camera moves to an ‘chapel’ devoted to Mother Mary, a revered Catholic figure beloved of women in particular; it comes to rest before the Virgin’s altar; the candles here are caught by more powerful currents of air: Blue flames …. Jerking on wicks. The women present are collectively old, sallow-skinned, chilled, widowed and devoted: Old dough-faced women on their knees with black shawls/ Drawn down tight. The scene lacks both warmth and permanence: candles […read more….]


Docker Heaney’s docker illustrates the sectarian stance adopted by bigoted unionist Protestant working-men towards the Catholic minority as the poet sensed it in the mid 20th century. He exposes the threatening prejudice lurking beneath the dour, uncompromising exterior of a dockworker.   The man sits silent and alone in the corner of a public bar staring at his drink. He is moulded by the dockside environment in which he works: Cap/ like a gantry’s crossbeam/ Cowling plated forehead and sledgehead jaw. His tightly sealed mouth (Speech … clamped in the lips’ vice) is suggestive of a man who communicates only when he has to, who neither questions his beliefs, nor will have them challenged. The docker’s unremitting Protestant nature (That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic) affirms the ever-present threat of sectarian division. Heaney comments on the irony he perceives: The only Roman collar he tolerates/ Smiles all […read more….]


Gravities The poem precedes a suite of seven poems devoted to stages in his relationship with Marie Devlin. It acts as a preface that considers the force that draws objects inexorably together; it is about pull and resistance, freedom and restriction, seriousness and levity. The poet prepares the ground for the serious responsibilities that love and marriage entail. The apparent licence for high-riding kites to range freely is illusory; the kite is actually bound by human controls: reined by strings strict and invisible. Homing pigeons liberated into the air are actually bound by an instinctively faithful impulse to return home. The consciences of couples truly in love, after they have subjected each other to barrages of hot insult/ Often cutting off their noses to spite their face, are troubled; as a result they admit mutual remorse and show repentance within the native port of their embrace. Home-sickness provides a powerful […read more….]


Valediction Heaney chooses a title of classical derivation that stresses the idea of final ‘farewell’, ‘adieu’. The young ‘lover’ separated from his ‘lady’ fears her absence might be more than just au revoir. The hold that he confesses she has over him has a touch of medieval ‘courtly love’ about it, that of the male in thrall to his loved one. The poem is more passionate in its expression than some later ones that reveal the poet’s solemn sense of responsibility, no doubt down to his up-bringing. The image he retains of his Lady’s departure reflects both her contemporary tastes and her appeal: frilled blouse/ And simple tartan skirt. Her going has left a gap in home, heart and mind: emptiness has hurt/ All thought. Sea imagery is used to contrast the stability her presence brought (like a vessel that rode easy, anchored/ On a smile) with insecurity born of […read more….]

Twice Shy

Twice Shy Heaney describes a walk, perhaps their very first, with the woman who would become his wife and to whom he has been married for forty years when District and Circle is published in 2006. The speaker is walking along a riverside with a woman whom he finds at once stylishly attractive, Her scarf á la Bardot yet practical: suede flats for the walk. Behind the pretext for their stroll, for air and friendly talk, an intense gravitational (see previous poem) pull is exerting itself. The attraction they are sharing has brought everything to a standstill: on the ground Traffic holding its breath; in the air Sky a tense diaphragm. Nightfall has provided a stage-set sensitive to the slightest change like a backcloth/ That shook where a swan swam. The couple have reached a dramatic moment of nervous thrill akin to that of a predator gathering itself to swoop […read more….]

Lovers on Aran

Lovers on Aran Heaney expands the sea/land relationship of Valediction settling on a metaphor that explained a couple’s mutual fulfilment at a place familiar to them where land and sea met and inter-reacted. The poem adds the only indirect sexual allusions in the collection. When they were there the sea at once elemental force and female symbol was seeking to possess what it came up against, its Waves arriving across a huge expanse of ocean breaking as they had broken since time began onto the western Irish island-shore; waves reflecting and refracting the sun: bright … broken glass … dazzling … glinting; sifting waves that both drew together and fragmented matter. Irresistible waves engaged in an act of physical possession as if a female power were seeking to dominate. Or, and the speaker offers an equally compelling alternative, the male symbol, the island itself, the immoveable object, sought to ‘possess’ […read more….]

Honeymoon Flight

Honeymoon Flight In an extended metaphor Heaney draws a parallel between the act of faith required to board an aeroplane en route to the somewhere-new and the insecurities that newly-weds might harbour. The ‘flight’ is both plane journey and a personal escape into a new world. Airborne, the watcher sees Below a bird’s-eye view of patchwork earth, dark hems of hedge. Landscape features recall the symbolic rituals of the recently celebrated wedding: the long grey tapes … that bind and loose used in the ceremony by the priest to unite the hands of bride and groom resemble the network of roads beneath that unite the Irish countryside in casual marriage. The loss of familiar, Irish country-scape, small lough and farmhouse … our familiar landscape turns things upside-down: the sure green world goes topsy-turvy. Just as alterations in the sound of the plane’s engine are worrying, unfamiliar shifts generate anxieties in […read more….]