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 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.
In support of students whose first language may not be English, definitions are designed to be as helpful as possible.
Comments are drawn from: Neil Corcoran (NC) The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, A Critical Study (Faber 1998):
Michael Parker (MP) Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet (MacMillan 1993);
Helen Vendler (HV) Seamus Heaney (Harvard University Press 1998);
Dennis O’Driscoll (DOD) Stepping Stones (Faber 2008). Page references are included where appropriate
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 appointment to Queen’s University, Belfast as an English lecturer make 1966 a very special year for the poet.
In the later collection, North of 1975, Heaney’s Singing School reflects on these earlier stages of his life (at home in Ulster and on his year’s sabbatical in California), 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.
Here’s two on’s are sophisticated,
Dabbling in verses till they have become
A life: from bulky envelopes arriving
In vacation time to slim volumes
Despatched `with the author’s compliments’.
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, subjects and settings around his first family home at Mossbawn.
All but a handful of the collection’s poems follow that lead including a segment dedicated to his wife and their experiences together. Alongside these very personal lyrics Heaney introduces issues that will assume higher profiles in his work: To the Commander of the Eliza provides a first reaction to the periodic humiliation and dispossession of the Irish nation at the hands of Protestant Anglo-Scottish invaders and government of Ireland from Whitehall; Docker provides the first caricature of entrenched sectarian attitudes threatening the minority Catholic population of Ulster and building ultimately to the cycle of murder and revenge that will characterise the period known as the ‘Troubles’; At a Potato Digging’ reflects on the Irish potato monoculture revisiting the famines of the 1840s that led to wholesale death but met with little sympathy or succour from government; Poor Women in a City Church hints at the power of the organised Church over ordinary mortals and reminds us of Heaney’s Catholic upbringing that will continue to resonate deep inside him even as his own faith weakened; both The Diviner and The Folk Singers celebrate an Irish ‘underlay’ that, much to Heaney’s regret, is being slowly replaced.
In summary, then, the collection recounts what Heaney ‘knows’ but though he remains within the ‘comfort-zone’ of his immediate surroundings and emotions he hints at other issues generated by ‘events’ over time. These are summarised in the section dedicated to ‘Settings, Subject Matter and Formats’ that follows individual commentaries and footnotes.
The achievements of this and subsequent collections will 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.
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 moves after the loss of Heaney’s brother, Christopher;
- thanks to enlightened education policies he makes best use of a privileged, largely ‘classical’ education; at school he is 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 beginnings: newly graduated from Queen’s University, Belfast (1961); enjoying its contingent undergraduate city life; potentially middle-class, in search of a career; 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’ (MP41);
- 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’ (in dialogue with DOD65);
- linking his evolving responses to the deteriorating political situation in Ulster with his 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’ (DOD66); 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 86). His feelings intensified and his sympathies became more apparent after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972;
- in the early 60s, however, he is in need of friends and mentors, hopefully 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 three major developments in 3 years, ‘into poetry, into marriage and into lecturing’, making 1966 his ‘annus mirabilis’ (DOD68);
Along the road to publication
- Heaney prepared the ground to become a teacher 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 to terms with Secondary teaching so registers for a post-graduate course at Queen’s; October 1963 brings 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). MP 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, honeymooning in London; their first child, Michael, was born very shortly after the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966;
- his wider circle of contacts came to include other creative people, for example, Irish surrealist painter Colin Middleton to whom In Small Townlands is dedicated;
- At some point 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’ in Fitzwilliam Street, Belfast. Meetings contained readings and critical responses to the poetry by its 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 the notion for Heaney’s poetic development); fellow group member, Michael Longley judged these first poems ‘basic’; for all this Heaney dedicated the collection’s final poem to Longley;
- 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 Heaney’s upbringing;
- MP judges Hobsbaum to have been 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 Hobsbaum’s literary contacts in London 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 kept the door open, however and accepted the manuscript submitted by Heaney in Summer 1965. Heaney was ‘in business’.
Heaney’s reflection on the relationship between poet and product is illuminating: ‘The autobiographical creature (himself as a prime source of materials) begins to be implicated in the textual masquerade (the final version on paper)’; he refers to ‘a composite who has written the book and sounds like yourself ‘(DOD61);
- MP refers to the ‘warm and sensuous pleasuring in words and experience one associates with Heaney’, noting 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’ (NC1);
- 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 7)
A Declaration of Intent
The collection starts with an apparent statement of poetic intent:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests, snug as a gun …
I’ll dig with it
he collection ends with the declaration of a deeper quest:
I rhyme To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Over nearly half a century Heaney will come to terms with himself, talk honestly about his imperfections and modestly about his achievements; he will navigate periods of extreme darkness on the Ulster front and yet, somehow, find a well-lit pathway for himself, his family and his career.