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, […]

Turkeys Observed

Turkeys Observed Providing a master class in transposing close observation into verse Heaney laments the sorry sight of turkeys slaughtered for Christmas. Shop-window displays of traditional festive British fare generate a chain of associations in the poet’s mind linking the ‘v’ of the Diviner’s hazel stick and the ‘v’ of a turkey’s wishbone (poor forked thing)! He paints a pitiful scene: plucked turkeys, blue-breasted in death, displayed unfeelingly in butchers’ shops (indifferent mortuary), beached like huge sea creatures on the shore, lying on cold marble slabs, stripped (bare) of their dignity save for butcher’s decoration (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 […]

Trout

Over time Heaney will write of the rivers and streams close to his boyhood home in a variety of moods. In Trout he takes advantage of an opportunity to pause on arched bridges and acquaint himself with life-forms in the stream below. The poet offers a master-class on how to translate visual observations into words; The first quatrain is formed around contrasting verbs: one of motionlessness, the other of movement: at one moment the fish Hangs (as if suspended in the water), its latent power like a fat gun-barrel waiting to be triggered; next it stirs (slips), sliding effortlessly like butter down the throat of the river. The trout’s design enables it to operate from the river’s depths smooth-skinned as […]

Cow in Calf

Picturing himself in a location familiar to him as a farmer’s son, Heaney composes a sonnet about birth and renewal. The poet weighs up the signs of pregnancy evident in the first instance (It seems) from the cow’s sheer bulk (as if she had swallowed a barrel) and from her sagging undercarriage (slung like a hammock) from front (forelegs) to rear (haunches). Farming experience recognizes the physical methods required to shift a cow (slapping her out of the byre). The smacks administered sound somehow different with a calf inside her body: solid, dull sounds like slapping a great bag of seed; smacks so weighty that his own hand suffers physical punishment (no doubt a distant memory of school!) smarting as […]

Waterfall

The power, texture and formats of flowing water present Heaney with the challenge of transposing the visual turbulence and disorder of a waterfall into words. Feel and finish are important in a poem that deploys a wide range of sense data. Heaney clarifies the process in the final triplet. The poet’s attention has followed a water course (burn) to a point above a waterfall where the pressure of water overwhelms it (drowns steadily its own downpour).  A maelstrom confusion of textures and light-effects is added (helter-skelter of muslin and glass); unseen obstacles cause skids and go-slows that throw up frothy soap-like suds. The cataract generates contradictory momentum (acceleration … braking). The irresistible gravitational effects injected at the moment the water […]

Poor Women in a City Church

A second vignette of Belfast life portrays the devotions of Catholic women in an unheated Belfast church. The poem forms a pictorial canvas recalling classical paintings of groups of worshippers in similar circumstances. Heaney focuses first on light-source and temperature effects: small wax candles melt to light, then on movement and reflections: shadows on smooth surfaces (flicker in marble); centred reflections on the curvature of shiny, metal surfaces (bright/ Asterisks).  The poetic eye moves on to discover the target of their piety in a ‘chapel’ devoted to Jesus’ mother (a revered Catholic figure beloved of women in particular); it comes to rest in front of the Virgin’s altar where the candles are buffeted by stronger draughts of air: Blue flames […]

Docker

Heaney read Docker to the Belfast ‘Group’ led by Philip Hobsbaum in late 1963. He had been invited to join the group as an undergraduate and expose his poems to a small non-denominational assembly of poets. The poem exposes the prejudice lurking behind the dour, uncompromising exterior of a dockworker in mid twentieth centure Belfast. To Heaney’s mind the man’s intimidating appearance embodies the sectarian mentality of favoured Protestant working men compared with the Catholic minority. Heaney is aware of employment policies that discriminated against Catholic dockers: shipbuilders Harland and Wolff for example aimed their recruitment policy towards Protestants. This prophetic poem deals with uncompromising attitudes. Non-communicative, the man sits silent and alone in the corner of a public bar […]

Gravities

The poem precedes a suite of seven poems devoted to stages in his relationship with Marie Devlin. It acts as a kind of foreword reflecting on the force that draws objects inexorably together. It is about pull and resistance, freedom and restriction, seriousness and levity of manner. The poet prepares the ground for what the coming together of two people entails. The poet does not accept that high-riding kites have the licence to range freely. He submits that they are in fact strongly controlled (reined by strings strict and invisible). Likewise the pigeon that flies away (deserts you suddenly) is bound by an instinctively faithful impulse to return home. After they have subjected each other to barrages of hot insult […]

Valediction

Following the first walk described in Twice Shy the relationship between Heaney and Marie Devlin has moved on; they are living together. Heaney chooses a title of classical derivation (saying ‘farewell’, ‘adieu’) betraying his fears that her temporary absence might be more than just au revoir and signal final separation. The need Marie has kindled within him has a touch of medieval ‘courtly love’ about it, that of the knight in thrall to his Lady. The poet composes a ‘lay’ (short lyrical song) akin to those a troubadour might sing. The poet retains the image of his departing Lady’s good taste and her appeal: frilled blouse/ And simple tartan skirt. Her absence has left a gap in both his heart […]

Twice Shy

A relationship is born. The so-christened ‘Devlin poem’ is first of a series of lyrics that celebrate their ties, recognising Marie’s place in Heaney’s development as a poet. His title invites us to complete the idiom ‘once bitten … twice shy’: those who have been hurt are doubly careful the next time round (especially in matters of love). Heaney describes a walk (perhaps their very first) with the woman who was to become his wife and to whom he had been married for nearly fifty years when he died in 2013. They met during their University days. The speaker is walking along the riverside with a woman he finds both sensationally attractive (Her scarf á la Bardot) yet sensible and […]

Lovers on Aran

Heaney expands the sea/land relationship of Valediction settling on an extended metaphor that encapsulates a couple’s togetherness and mutual fulfilment (they are on holiday off the west coast of Ireland in a place where land and sea meet and inter-react). The poem should be read in the context of seduction and sensual communion of man and woman. The sea, both elemental force and feminine symbol, seeks to possess the landmass she comes up against. Her Waves have broken constantly since time began onto this southern Irish island-shoreline, reflecting and refracting light (bright … broken glass … dazzling … glinting); her waves have rolled in from distant, exotic lands (Americas) examining and fragmenting matter (sifting … sifting); her waves are pursuing […]

Poem

Spurred on by a hang-up about childhood shortcomings Heaney expresses the determination that his marriage and his new direction will be successful; he is prepared to change and be changed. Faced with three seismic life-changes in his twenties (leaving behind his rural background for University in 1959; preparing his first collection of poetry after 1960; marriage in 1965), the poet identifies his wife as the force who will steer him through these rites of passage. Convinced that her support will help him grow and develop, he addresses her directly. Heaney offers his new wife (Love) an alternative wedding vow: he will grow up and seek to improve himself (I shall perfect for you the child). He recalls his boyhood self: […]

Honeymoon Flight

Using an extended metaphor Heaney draws a parallel between the act of faith required to board an aeroplane and the concerns that newly-weds harbour. The ‘flight’ is both a literal plane journey and, figuratively, an intentional move into uncharted territory, less a reference to the post-marital event than metaphor for the journey required and undertaken to achieve durable togetherness. Heaney has a bird’s-eye view (Below) of Ulster beneath the flight-path (patchwork earth, dark hems of hedge). Its landscape recalls the symbolic rituals of the recently celebrated wedding: roads resemble the long grey tapes placed symbolically by the priest across the hands of bride and groom to unite the couple (bind), mirroring the loose road-network linking the Irish countryside in casual […]

Scaffolding

Heaney adopts a serious tone setting out the need for sound construction in relationships; he does so in a very sincere but rather sermonizing way as if to suggest that he alone possesses the skills. In his attempt to reassure them both Heaney betrays a touch of insecurity in hims The building industry provides him with the perfect metaphor for successful marriage: masons insist on the basics from the outset. Maintenance is top priority: they test out the scaffolding to ensure safe passage (planks won’t slip at busy points), provide reliable access (secure all ladders) and stabilize weak spots (tighten bolted joints). Though temporary, the scaffolding is vital to achieve walls of sure and solid stone. Should occasional (sometimes) flashes […]

Synge on Aran

Heaney likens the wind’s erosive force to a human voice capable of equal abrasiveness in his portrayal of a much respected literary Irishman who, around 1900, spent time in exile on one of the Aran islands in Galway Bay in a vain attempt to overcome a life-threatening illness. On Aran the elemental power of Nature overwhelms what stands in its way … Synge is of the same uncompromising stock and the final couplet summarizes the physical and emotional correspondences between the man and his adopted environment. From all points of the compass the four winds of Aran, their sword- blades sharpened by salt off the sea, abrade the island landscape (peel and pare down). Neither the karst limestone (locked rock) […]

Storm on the Island

Heaney addresses the threats alluded to in Honeymoon Flight and Scaffolding using the metaphor of a storm-swept island to calm any niggling insecurities in his wife’s newly-wed mind. His deeper meaning emerges: solid foundation and stoic perseverance will secure the couple’s long-term survival whatever short-term extremities life may throw in their way. The storm (from which there is no shelter) is one such ordeal. A decisive joint-statement affirms that he and Marie have what it takes: they have come to their island prepared, recognizing the best design for durable construction: no high-rise in this climate (houses squat);   solid foundations and materials (walls in rock); sound roofing (good slate).  The weather-beaten (wizened) terrain accustomed to ruthless elemental attacks is stripped of […]

Saint Francis and the Birds

In the footsteps of the Irish literary giant of Synge on Aran Heaney celebrates a much revered Catholic icon. The landscape of a weather-beaten island off the south-west Irish coast gives way to the mild calm of a southere European setting where inspired by birds flying around the parvis of a meridional church Heaney honours a saint whose relationship with the natural world is not dissimilar to his own relationship with words. Both he and Francis have a message to transmit. In a scene where the eponymous Francis preached love to the birds Heaney reworks the friar’s mystical gift of communication, weaving words and birds into a surreal animation: having listened they took off, hovered for an instant (fluttered) before […]

Digging

Digging by Seamus Heaney Digging was composed ‘at home’ at The Wood in August, 1964. The poet is seated behind a window pen in hand, in the act of composition. He focuses initially on the hand holding his squat pen, the symbolic tool of the trade to which he aspires. Compared with the elegance of the spades used by father and grandfather, his pen is unglamorously short and stubby. Heaney lends the pen a small-arms image, warm and reassuring in his grasp, snug as a gun … designed to fire bullets. The world below Heaney’s window is ‘on screen’. His attention has been attracted by the sound of digging: a clean rasping sound … into gravelly ground. The man bent […]

The Barn

  A second bad-dream poem plays on the stuff of nightmare: half-light and darkness; day and night, benign and threatening. Harmless objects picked out in the first section assume very different natures once a child’s imagination is given free rein. A youngster describes a place very familiar to him: his memory recalls farm objects stored in a barn. His eye observes initially at floor level. Here he sees threshed corn with the consistency, colour (and indeed value to the farmer) of grit of ivory lying scattered on the ground or packed solid as cement in two-lugged sacks (the stitching-up of the sacks provided two ear-like corners, to be gripped by those lugging them about); here he smells musty dark and […]

Death of an Naturalist

Heaney recalls how, as a youngster with a vivid imagination, he was open to disturbing dreams, describing how his childish enthusiasm for nature around his Irish townland turned into a nightmarish tale fed by his guilty perception of having committed a crime and his dread of punishment. He recounts the annual All year flax process (that leads eventually to the production of linen), picking out the natural phenomena surrounding it: gases given off (bubbles gargled delicately); abundance of insect life (bluebottles/ wove a strong gauze of sound …/ dragon-flies, spotted butterflies). The language is rich in alliterative and assonant effects ( flax-dam festered … heavy-headed) with a vocabulary of fermentation (festered … rotting … sweltered … smell). To a boy […]

Blackberry Picking

Recalling himself as a boy enjoying a family activity that appealed to his nature and all his senses Heaney show-cases his talent for transposing close observation into words. From late summer blackberries would grow in profusion around the family home at Mossbawn. Every year optimum growing conditions of moisture and warmth (heavy rain and sun) would guarantee a crop of blackberries. Reference to summer’s blood ensures the idea of a ‘living’ fruit. Each bramble would carry blackberries at different stage of maturity and edibility: red, green, hard as a knot.   The front-runner (just one, a glossy purple clot) savoured for its flesh…sweet/ Like thickened wine was sufficient to whet the desire to savour (lust or picking).  As increasing numbers […]

Churning Day

Heaney describes the production of farm-made butter witnessed as a youngster. The poem reveals close observations of the technical stages that accompany a ‘magical’ transformation. The process is akin to alchemy: the family produces gold from base metal, butter from milk! They are magicians The rising cream of the milk gradually formed a thick crust with the texture and colour of building materials: coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast. The milk-containers are four crocks/ … large pottery bombs, an analogy that forecasts the explosive transformation that will ultimately take place, echoed, perhaps, in the later reference to the suffocating sulphur mine. On its journey to the butter-churn the milk underwent a radical change, from its creation inside the cow’s hot brewery of […]

The Early Purges

The title is borrowed from totalitarian politics where ‘purges’ removed elements deemed ‘undesirable’ by those in power. Heaney applies it to the cruel realities of farm-yard life as he experienced them as a six-year-old. A youngster’s innate feelings are challenged. The boy has a conscience and sympathies but (as Heaney, perhaps, later in the Troubles) is never an active contributor to violence; Dan Taggart is the ruthless agent of totalitarian policy, despatching ‘pests, in this case drowning kittens. Insulting his victims beforehand as ‘scraggy wee shits’ somehow helps Taggart to justify his acts. The young watcher’s compassion is aroused by the sounds of their clawing attempts to survive (frail metal sound), the last throes of panic (Soft paws scraping like […]

An Advancement of Learning

The poem was written in early 1963 and first published in The Irish Times. It portrays an instinctively timid person poised to make a stand against the nature he was born with. The defeated child of ‘Death of a Naturalist’  (and the over-imaginitive youngster of ‘The Barn’ will grow in courage and see himnself a little more clearly. The poem’s title is borrowed from English philosopher Francis Bacon’s book The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605). Heaney prefers the indefinite article to specify an incident instrumental in his own personal development. The speaker sets out along the river. His aside confirms the habitual choice of route (As always, deferring/ The bridge). As he stands Hunched over the railing, his initial […]

Mid-Term Break

Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney The title’s  play on the word break (‘time off school ’) refers more poignantly  to a tragedy to which Heaney was exposed at the age of fourteen and led to a moment of severance that would affect his whole life. From peculiar changes in his daily routine, via stages of dawning reality, to the heart-rending visual impact of a corpse laid in its coffin, Heaney comes to understand the irreversibility of his younger brother Christopher’s death (as result of a car accident in February 1953).  Driven home he responds impassively to the reactions of family and neighbours before coming face to face with his departing brother and finding a formula for expressing his growing awareness. […]