Analysis of Poem Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney

Updated on May 31, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney | Source

Seamus Heaney And A Summary of Death Of A Naturalist

Death of a Naturalist is a blank verse poem that focuses on the loss of childhood innocence.

Heaney looks back to a time when he was a boy initially enthralled by the local flax-dam, an area of boggy water in his native County Derry, Northern Ireland. The first person speaker concentrates on the resident frog population and the frog life-cycle.

  • But as the poem progresses the speaker's viewpoint alters - the once fascinating frogs become a threat, the language changes radically to reflect this and begins to create tension within the poem.
  • The two stanzas are highly contrasting. The first is full of positive delight as the boy observes and is fascinated by the frogs and frogspawn of the flax-dam. The second brings fear and loathing as the male frogs invade with their coarse croaking and belligerent menace.

There is a parallel between the life cycle of the frog and the development of the boy - here is an innocent child changing into a young adolescent, a world of delight and innocence transformed into one that threatens and disgusts.

Heaney's language is typically rich in what have become known as clusters of sound - alliteration and assonance juxtaposed, the varied vowel and consonant sounds carrying different rhythms, the rise and fall, the mix of hard and soft.

For example:

Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats.

There are similar lines of simple effectiveness in other poems from the book Death of a Naturalist, 1966. Churning Day:

our brains turned crystals full of clean deal churns,

the plash and gurgle of the sour-breathed milk,

the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.

Many of Heaney's poems often appear simple and straightforward on the page yet once read (out loud) reveal subtle and powerful sound patterns that are quite musical and a challenge for the mouth.

Death of a Naturalist takes the reader into this textured world of phonetics, sounds that are born in a landscape in which the young Heaney lived and loved.

The life cycle of a frog is something many of us are familiar with - the poem captures this process as it impinges on the psyche of the young speaker. At first it is a wonder, something to marvel at. Later on, with the child grown, the frogs take on a different persona. Life has changed irrevocably. A hard lesson to learn. The mindset of the boy has altered, he runs away in fear, instinct kicking in.

Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

. Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Analysis of Death Of A Naturalist Line By Line

Lines 1 - 4

The speaker looks back to the time of the flax-dam - flax or linseed is a plant grown for its seed and oil - painting a picture in alliterative and assonantal words, typical of Heaney.

The flax-dam festered, that is, decayed, as the sods (lumps of turf or grass) weighed them down on a piece of land in the town.

So the reader is taken into the speaker's past where a hot punishing sun beats down on the dam (area of watery swamp), which sweltered - was uncomfortably hot.

Note the combination of long and short vowels and similar sounding end words (h and s prominent).

Lines 5 - 10

The descriptive observations continue with a mix of varied consonants producing textured sounds so often found in Heaney's more complex lines. This tends to slow the pace down, especially when a full or end stop and a caesura or two cause the reader to pause. Throw in some long vowels and you have the idea of a slow, warm drowsy feel. For example in lines 5 and 6:

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

With the addition of flying insects and frogspawn in the next few lines it becomes clear that nature and its effects feature strongly.

The language in line 8 is somewhat naïve...But best of all was the warm thick slobber....is a reminder of childhood, it could be an excited boy speaking, the young Heaney. By the way, slobber is defined as saliva dripping from the mouth - so this is an unusual image.

The poet's use of internal rhyme is worth closer inspection. Alliteration and assonance within the lines is quite obvious but from line to line there are also rhyming echoes and resonances:

festered...heavy headed...sweltered

townland...down...sound around

bluebottles...smell...spotted butterflies...slobber...clotted

It's the mix and contrast of sounds, coupled with pauses and stops which tend to break up the iambic beat that make some of Heaney's poems so rich and nourishing to listen to.

A quick technical note on sounds. Basically there are five: fricative (f, th) sibilant (s, sh, ch,x) plosive (b,p,t,d) and liquid (l)and nasal (m,n).

Analysis of Death Of A Naturalist Lines 10 - 21

Lines 10 - 21

The speaker gets close up and personal, becoming first person in line 11 for the first time. Picture the child filling jampots (jam is British fruit conserve sold in glass jars. Americans call it jelly) with the slobbery spawn.

Heaney uses enjambment to great effect throughout the poem but from lines 10 - 21 it occurs no less than ten times which helps build momentum as lines run on into following lines, maintaining the sense, pauses often coming early on or roughly midway.

In line 15 the speaker mentions his teacher, Miss Walls, who gave the outline of the life cycle of the frog to the class.

It becomes crystal clear that the boy Heaney was well impressed by all this frogspeak. His enthusiasm is obvious - he could even get to know what the weather outlook would be from observing the adult frogs.

The language again reflects the innocence...daddy and mammy...this part of the poem is a bit like a children's story, the speaker simply describing what he's been taught and told.

The 21st line is just two words long...In rain...focusing on the element frogs like best.

Second Stanza Lines 22 - 33

The indented 22nd line reinforces the change in tone. The frogs are now angry for some reason, and cow dung is rank (stinky) near the flax-dam. The first person speaker is apparent again, the boy Heaney now aware that these frogs are different, threatening even.

Their croaking is coarse (rough, primitive) and they are now gross bellied, cocked/On sods.

  • This change in language reflects the change in the boy as innocence is lost and adolescence begins to kick in. It could be that the use of cocked, pulsed, slap, plop, grenades, blunt, farting, sickened, slime and vengeance reflects this physical and emotional/hormonal change from childhood into puberty.

There is a definite shift in tone - fear takes over - the child is no longer lost in innocence, wide-eyed in wonder at the frog's life cycle. The child has gone. Life has altered irrevocably. The child knows this and will not dip his hand into the spawn anymore.

Literary/Poetic Devices in Death of A Naturalist

Death of a Naturalist is full of literary devices such as:

Alliteration

When two or more words in close proximity begin with the same consonant:

flax-dam festered...heavy headed...strong gauze of sound...But best...jampotfuls of the jellied...and wait and watch...how he croaked and how...coarse croaking...had not heard...down the dam...Some sat...

Assonance

When two or more words close together in a line have similar sounding vowels:

punishing sun...sound around...grass the angry...frogs were cocked...plop were obscene..

Caesura

This is a pause or break in a line because of punctuation (or naturally in a long line). For example, in lines 10 and 24:

In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges

Enjambment

When a line runs on into the next with no punctuation yet keep the sense. There are many examples in this poem, the reader encouraged to minimise the pause at line ending and carry straight on. For example in the lines:

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst, into nimble

Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how

Onomatopoeia

Where a word sounds like the thing described. For example:

slobber/slap and plop

Personification

When an object or thing is given human characteristics or behaviour. For example:

Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.

the angry frogs

were gathered there for vengeance

Simile

A comparison using the words like or as:

their loose necks pulsed like sails...poised like mud grenades


What Is The Metre (Meter in American English) of Death Of A Naturalist

Death of a Naturalist is written in blank verse, traditionally a form associated with iambic pentameter, that is, five iambic feet in each line, a repeated daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. The first syllable is unstressed, the second stressed.

Iambic pentameter in pure form produces a plodding steady beat but as will be discovered, this poem deviates from the iambic many times. This helps break up the rhythms and creates a varied tempo. Together with punctuation, the syntax becomes more complex, and arguably, more challenging.

Let's take a closer look at the poem:

All year / the flax- / dam fest / ered in / the heart
Of the / townland; / green and / heavy / headed
Flax had / rotted / there, weight / ed down / by huge sods.
Daily / it swelt / ered in / the pun / ishing sun.

These first four lines show that iambic pentameter in pure form isn't present, so giving a varied rhythm and textured sound. All the lines scan as pentameters - each has five feet - but each has a combination of contrasting feet.

Take line 3 which starts off with two trochees, counterbalanced by two iambs, before an anapaest (dadaDUM) ends the line. There are eleven syllables, which adds weight to the line.

The fourth line is also a mix - a trochee, an iamb, a pyrrhic in the middle (no stresses) another iamb before an anapaest enhances the assonantal ending.

And here are the three end lines:

I sick / ened, turned, / and ran. / The great / slime kings
Were gath / ered there / for ven / geance and / I knew
That if / I dipped / my hand / the spawn / would clutch it.

The line I sickened...has four iambs and ends with an emphatic spondee (DUMDUM) and the next is pure iambic pentameter...with the last line displaying four iambs and a rare amphibrach (daDUMda), the eleventh syllable holding on.

Heaney's poems challenge the reader with their varied sounds and mix of hard and soft, long and short consonants and vowels. This deep underlying rhythmic music adds to the bigger picture as the poem progresses.

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      4 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Heaney's Death of a Naturalist is an early poem and displays his talent for simple yet meaningful content. Is this my second reply? Ah well, two in one, not a bad deal! Cheers Verlie.

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      4 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Some of Heaney's lines in various poems are like exotic foods in the mouth, all that textured sound, a real workout for the vocal cords. Slowly going through his best known poems. As for the fricatives etc etc, I only touch the surface! There is a massive amount of stuff on sound, very technical.... too technical! But annoyingly fascinating. Grateful for the visit and comment Verlie Westcoast.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      4 months ago from Canada

      Hi Andrew, I enjoyed your detailed analyses of Heaney's 'Death of a Naturalist'. As always, there is good instruction for any poet trying to understand the basics, but I was thrilled to see the technical note on sounds:

      "Basically there are five: fricative (f, th) sibilant (s, sh, ch,x) plosive (b,p,t,d) and liquid (l)and nasal (m,n)" which I have never come across before. Thanks so much for adding that!

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