Saturday, 21 November 2009

Death of a Naturalist - Seamus Heaney

Heaney's poem 'Death of a Naturalist' focuses on his experience of collecting and watching frogspawn as a child, and his reaction when the spawn turned into frogs.

In the first ten lines of the poem Heaney uses vivid imagery to describe the setting and its sights, smell and sounds. The phrase 'flax-dam festered' in the opening line combines assonance and alliteration, and begins to create the atmosphere of decay. 'Heavy headed' at the end of the second line again uses assonance and alliteration in one phrase to describe the flax that had rotted. The heaviness is emphasised further in the third line, where the flax is 'weighted down by huge sods'. The idea that hot weather has caused the decay is expressed in line four: 'Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun', a personification of the oppressiveness of the sun. A gentler image focusing on sound is created in 'Bubbles gargled delicately' in line five. The movement of flies is described with a metaphor: 'bluebottles / wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell', a fascinating image combining different senses. Line seven hints at the beauty of the scene with its 'dragonflies, spotted butterflies'.

In line eight Heaney makes the first mention of frogspawn with the metaphor 'warm thick slobber', which as a child was 'best of all' to him among the offerings of nature. In line nine he uses the simile 'grew like clotted water' to describe his impression of it. The poem then switches to an account of how Heaney collected frog spawn every spring, filling 'jampotfuls of the jellied / specks', imagery that again combines alliteration and assonance. The jars were arranged both at home and at school, then carefully observed as the specks turned into 'nimble-/swimming tadpoles' – another example of assonance.

Lines fifteen to twenty-one (the end of the first stanza) are a very childlike account of how the schoolteacher, Miss Walls, taught Heaney's class about frogs and frogspawn. Simple, childish language features in this section, such as 'the mammy frog laid hundreds of little eggs'; there are four clauses each joined by 'and' in this sentence, just as though it were written by a child. The final sentence of the first stanza continues in the same style, telling us that frogs are yellow in sunny weather but 'brown / In rain'. The last, brief two-word line of the first stanza seems to underline the fact that this is the end of a period of innocence and that a change is forthcoming.

The second stanza of twelve lines is much shorter than the first and has a very different tone; the feeling of change is signalled by the opening phrase 'Then one hot day'... Unpleasant imagery begins with fields described as 'rank / with cowdung'. At the end of line two and the beginning of line three the frogs are seen as 'angry' and have 'invaded the flax-dam': they have taken over in a war-like gesture. As Heaney approached he heard a 'coarse croaking' that was a new sound in that setting; in line twenty-six he uses the metaphor 'The air was thick with a bass chorus' to describe how the sound filled the place. Frogs are everywhere and they are ugly, 'gross-bellied', pictured with assonance in the phrase 'cocked / on sods'. Their flabby necks are described by Heaney with the simile 'pulsed like sails'. The sound of their movements is expressed by onomatopoeia: 'slap and plop', which obviously disgusted Heaney who felt that these were 'obscene threats'. In line thirty their stance is described by the simile 'Poised like mud grenades', an image that echoes the war-like connotation of the word 'invaded' in line twenty-four. Heaney again voices his distaste for the sound of the frogs in the phrase 'their blunt heads farting'. He could not face them, and in line thirty-one he 'sickened, turned and ran', such was his revulsion. He personifies them as 'great slime kings' and in the following line states that they had assembled at the flax-dam for revenge: 'gathered there for vengeance' for stolen frogspawn. Heaney's final line expresses how far his imagination as a child took hold: 'if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it'. This is a nightmare image where the spawn becomes powerful and grabs the child, reversing the original roles.

The structure of the poem, where the first stanza is almost twice the length of the first, resembles that of Heaney's 'Blackberry-Picking'. Both poems describe an enjoyable childhood experience in the first stanza which turns sour in the second, linking form to meaning. The feeling of disillusion and disappointment following pleasure is a common theme in these two poems. 'Death of a Naturalist' links language to meaning as well, the vivid imagery of the second stanza creating a marked contrast with the simple, childlike wording of lines fifteen to twenty-one. There is a wealth of description here and we can sympathise with the child's disgust of the creatures that evolved from his precious jars of frogspawn.

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