In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Heaney conjures a richly evocative image of the countryside, focusing on this flax dam where all the action takes place. He creates such a sensory journey that even the most uninitiated city dweller feels a keen sense of the beating heart of the countryside. Through the eyes of a child, we sense their intrigue and excitement as he sees nature up-close and watches as tadpoles become frogs. But the poem also depicts a loss of innocence as the poet/speaker sees the harsher side of nature and feels threatened and frightened by the end.
Born in 1939 County Londonderry (or Derry as it is more often referred to by Nationalists) Seamus Heaney is often known as a ‘farmer poet’ since many of his earliest poems are based on and around the farm and neighborhood where he was raised. ‘Death of a Naturalist’ appeared in his first major anthology of the same name, which was published in 1966. Heaney died in 2013, aged 74.
Flax is the plant from which linen is manufactured. Sown in the spring, the plants were then harvested in summer. The plants were then bundled into sheaves and placed in a flax dam to ‘rot’. The purpose of this was to rot the stems and expose the fiber within from which linen is made. A flam was a large pond, usually fed by an adjacent brook. The linen industry thrived in Northern Ireland until the mid-twentieth century when the advent of synthetic fabrics diminished its appeal. The word ‘townland’ is a colloquial term used to describe the farm and surrounding fields and land owned by the farmer.
You can read the whole poem here.
Structure and Form
The poem is set out in two stanzas with a distinct volta in the second, signaled by the word ‘Then’ to indicate a change in the poet/speaker’s relationship with nature. It is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) throughout.
Analysis of Death of a Naturalist
All year the flax-dam festered in the heartOf the townland; green and heavy headedFlax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.(…)Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs tooFor they were yellow in the sun and brownIn rain.
Although this stanza focuses on the child’s excitement, there are warning signs in the first line that there is a darker element to this poem. An ominous tone is created in by the use of the words ‘festered’, ‘rotted’, ‘sweltered’, and ‘punishing’. Already there is a sense of nature at its most unforgiving, but rather than alarm the child it seems to captivate him. He watches and listens intently and doesn’t seem repulsed as the ‘bluebottles/Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.’ The juxtaposition of the bubbles which ‘gargled delicately’ makes it seem like a chemistry experiment. This somewhat gruesome theme is continued by the simile ‘like clotted water’; a macabre image that makes us think of blood and vampires: all fascinating to a child.
This excitement is conveyed by the superlative phrase: ‘But best of all was the warm thick slobber of/Frogspawn’. The ‘slobber’ is doubly thrilling as not only is it and ‘gunge-like’ in texture, but it actually transforms into something else, which he documents in detail, tracing their evolution from ‘jellied specks to ‘fattening dots’ to ‘nimble swimming tadpoles’. Through the eyes of the speaker/poet we almost turn the pages of a science book. The alliteration in the phrase ‘I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied specks’ creates a jaunty tone and creates a sense of the child’s delight, as his investigations are supported at home and in school by Miss Walls. He is encouraged in his pursuits as sets them around the house and at school. Childish vernacular is used as the teacher ‘Miss Walls’ explains about the ‘mammy’ frog and the ‘daddy’ frog. The colloquialism of ‘mammy’ firmly places this poem in an Irish context. The simplistic language and the repetition of ‘frog’ in this stanza’s final sentence echoes a child reporting what he has learned in school that day.
Literary Devices in Stanza One
In the first stanza, Heaney makes such extensive use of alliteration and assonance that the language almost feels heavy and sticky, to emulate a hot summer’s day on the farm. The process of rotting the flax took time, and this is suggested by how the poet has drawn out the vowels, for example in the long ‘e’ sounds of ‘green and heavy headed’ and the proliferation of ‘o’ sounds in line six referring to the bluebottles. The Irish countryside is damp and this sense of wetness is suggested by the phrase ‘huge sods’. It is impossible to read this verse quickly, until the childlike pattern of the last sentence.
Then one hot day when fields were rankWith cowdung in the grass the angry frogsInvaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges(…)I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kingsWere gathered there for vengeance and I knewThat if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
The change of tone occurs abruptly with the word ‘Then’. After the languorous language of the first stanza, this verse begins with a harsh monosyllabic line: ‘The one hot day when fields were rank/with cowdung’. Both ‘rank’ and ‘dung’ sound cacophonous with harsh consonance. The word ‘dung’ is an Anglo-Saxon word for cow manure, used colloquially in Northern Ireland.
He describes the frogs as an army, coming back to seize what was theirs. This is indicated by the word ‘invaded’ and reinforced by words used to suggest battle: ‘cocked’, ‘poised’ and ‘grenades’. The words ‘coarse croaking’ sound abrasive and unpleasant, and they form a ‘bass chorus’. Again the proliferation of ‘o’ sounds combined with the harsh ‘c’ shows that this is eerie and grating on the child’s nerves.
Again he makes use of graphic visual imagery as we can almost feel the pulse in the toad’s neck in the simile ‘like a sail’. He continues to use language that a child would find entertaining, and it reads in part almost like a cartoon with the onomatopoeic ‘slap’ and ‘plop’, except where they are juxtaposed beside the words ‘obscene threat’. This should be a spectacle to a child, but is instead frightening because of the number of toads and their perceived indignation at the human intrusion.
Like in the first stanza, his use of run-on lines and caesura pauses seems to slow the verse down, as though the child is rooted to the spot, taking it all in. The hyperbole of the line the ‘great slime kings’ could sound humorous, but placed immediately after ‘I sickened, turned, and ran’ we feel the child’s terror. This is confirmed in the final lines when he states with certainty: ‘I knew/That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.’ Once more the line is sharp with monosyllabic words.
The whole poem could be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery that could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same about the countryside after this encounter.