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 of this age all is innocent enjoyment (the best of all ): the celebration of an annual pond event (the warm, thick slobber/ of frogspawn … like clotted water) based on the biological process that excited his interest. Innocent collection of jampotfuls of the jellied/ Specks for school and for home is followed by close observation of what happened next: wait and watch until/ The fattening dots burst into nimble-/ Swimming tadpoles.

The poet mimics the voice of his Primary teacher, her Irishness revealed by the Ulster pronunciation of mammy: how she explained the biology in the simplistic way that helps young children to understand then added 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 bad dream signalled by enhanced awareness of unpleasant odours (one hot day when the fields were rank/ With cowdung) conjured up an army of angry frogs their unprecedented aggression (coarse croaking that I had not heard before) driving him to take cover (I ducked). The odds stacked against him were overwhelming: outnumbered (The air … thick with a bass chorus); their sheer ugly size (gross-bellied); the threat of violence (cocked/ On sods); their throats inflated to scare: (their loose necks pulsed like snails).

Overwhelmed by a sense of acute peril (The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat/ Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting) the boy loses courage and is routed: I sickened, turned and ran.

He now recognizes a subconscious crime: by collecting frogspawn he deprived the frog-parents of their young and exposed himself to retribution: The great slime kings/ Were gathered there for vengeance. The innocent ‘naturalist’ that he was is no more, leaving him in no mind to repeat the act: I knew/ That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

  • flax-dam: a pool in which bundles of flax are left for 3 weeks to soften the stems; the gas given out by the rotting plants produces an appalling smell;

  • fester: rot and smell offensively;
  • townland: Ulster village;
  • sod: piece of turf;
  • swelter: become uncomfortably hot;
  • gargle: wash liquid around the mouth and throat;
  • bluebottle: large blowfly;
  • gauze: thin, transparent fabric;
  • dragon-flies: predatory insects commonly found around water;
  • spotted: marked with spots;
  • slobber: dripping saliva;
  • frogspawn: transparent jelly carrying frogs’ eggs;
  • clotted: coagulated (of blood, cream etc);
  • jampot: glass jam-container;
  • jellied: that has set, turned solid and elastic like a jelly;
  • speck: tiny spot/ dot;
  • range: set out, arrange;
  • dot: speck;
  • nimble: light in movement, agile;
  • mammy: Ulster pronunciation of ‘mummy’;
  • rank: unpleasant, offensive;
  • cowdung: animal excrement, manure;
  • ducked: lower the body to navigate an obstacle;
  • bass: the lowest voice range;
  • gross: very obvious and unpleasant;
  • cocked: raise the firing lever of a gun ready shoot;
  • pulse: throbbed, beat rhythmically;
  • sail: canvas that swells with the wind and propels a boat;
  • poised: waiting motionless (ready to spring into action);
  • slap: the sound of a smack;
  • plop: the sound of an object falling into water;
  • blunt: having a flat or rounded end;
  • fart: emit wind from the buttocks (impolite);
  • slime: thick, slippery liquid;
  • The poem presents a ‘sensual evocation of Humanity’s violation of Nature’ (MP57);

  • this and the next poem expose ‘the dark underside of childhood’ (ibid38);

  • a fall from innocence into experience’ (ibid 6);

  • A code of ethics stirs within a youngster; the poem ends with an explicit statement of new knowledge acquired during the incidents described’ (NC 6);

  • the poem contains the terrible knowledge of the threat implicit in apparently benign natural forms’ (ibid 6);

  • referring to mud grenades (above) Heaney suggests how easy it is for the reader to visit sociological motives on what, for the poet, 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 (DOD 83);

  • 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) nightmare takes over;

  • lines largely based on 10 syllables with a single exception; their arrangement as sentences with enjambed lines offers alternative ways of delivering emphasis and pace to the text; no rhyme scheme;

  • 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;

  • the Irishness of the teacher is betrayed by her use of mammy; her delivery indicates the young age of her charges;

  • a series of short sentence units is interrupted by the longer sequence that follows the Primary teacher’s voice; sentence length, internal punctuation and the used of enjambed lines offer the reader a variety of rhythm, musicality and emphasis;

  • alliterations in pairs or sets: voiceless labio-dental [f] in flax/ festered; sibilant [s] & [ʃ] in sods/ sweltered/ punishing/ sun/ sound smell/ slobbered/frogspawn/ loose/ pulsed/ snails/ gross/ frogs/ sods; interlabial [w] wait/ watch; voiced alveolar [] 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 and ran;

  • strong sense involvement:: sound, smell (taste is never far away from smell), touch, sight all activated;

  • the synaesthetic blur of the bluebottle weaving a strong gauze of sound around occasions; synaesthesia describes one sense using vocabulary associated with another (e.g. a ‘loud tie’);

  • onomatopoeia can also produce such extraordinary effects as the ‘bass chorus’ of the frogs; onomatopoeia refers to words where sound and meaning go hand in hand.

  • it is worth exploring 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;

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

Death of a Naturalist

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first lines, for example, weave together a cluster of plosives (alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant [s], nasal [n] and bi –labial [f];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment