Death of a Naturalist
(1966) is Seamus Heaney’s first major poetry collection. One of the most popular poets of the twentieth century, Heaney is best known for his groundbreaking and controversial translation of Beowulf
(1999). In 1995, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Well-received, Death of a Naturalist
won several prestigious awards: the Cholmondeley Award (1966), the E. C. Gregory Award (1966), the Somerset Maugham Award (1968), and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1968). The volume contains thirty-four poems, thematically focused on memories from childhood, his family, and growing up in a rural farm town in Northern Ireland.
“Digging,” one of his best-known poems, is the first in this volume. In it, Heaney remembers his father and grandfather digging in the bog and cutting turf on the family farm. He admires the skill and strength they had: “By God, the old man could handle a spade. / Just like his old man.” However, Heaney decides that his spade will be a pen, thus breaking with the family tradition of farming. This poem is significant, beginning the volume with the end decision. His admiration of his father’s skill comes through again in “Follower.” The poem contains concrete details about the team of horses and the skill guiding the plow that makes a young Heaney want to emulate him someday, though he admits that he had made a clumsy, talkative nuisance of himself and only ever followed his father around.
In the title poem, “The Death of a Naturalist,” he recounts the frogs and tadpoles inhabiting the flax-dam (a pool where flax is placed to soften). The poem moves from his boyish fascination with frogs and tadpoles, of keeping jars of frog eggs on windowsills to watch them hatch into tadpoles, to his fear of them. One day the flax-dam is “invaded” by hoards of frogs, slimy and croaking, and it unnerves him to the point that he loses all interest in being a naturalist. This unease with parts of nature continues throughout the rest of the poems. For example, he reveals an intense fear of rats in “An Advancement of Learning,” mentioning them with a cold, sick horror throughout the rest of the volume.
Heaney muses on the diverse experiences of rural living, revealing a profound discomfort, or even dislike of it. In “Blackberry Picking,” he remembers picking blackberries during August. Berry picking is usually shorthand for idyllic country living, but for Heaney, picking the berries meant thorns, wet grass, stained and sticky hands, and fruit that rot too quickly to eat. Even grimmer is the poem “The Early Purges,” which begins with his childhood memory of watching a farmer drown kittens. It is a traumatic experience for him, even when it becomes commonplace to see the farmer trapping other pests like rats and rabbits and wringing the necks of old hens who are past usefulness. The killings are couched in terms of preventing cruelty and protecting farm assets, but the reader has the feeling that even though exterminating such pests is good farm management, it still troubles Heaney.
Other poems focus on family and relationships. “Mid-Term Break” is about returning home for the funeral of his four-year-old brother who died after being hit by a car while Heaney was away at school. He describes the scene of the funeral, especially the awkwardness of strangers who try to comfort him and his family with trite platitudes: “I was embarrassed / By old men standing up to shake my hand / And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble.’” His parents are also grieving in their own ways, as his usually stoic father weeps on the porch and his mother sighs angrily. The memory of the funeral, and the finality of death contrasting with the baby still laughing in the pram, captures the emotional shock and distance that accompany sudden death.
On a lighter note, “Twice Shy” is about going for a walk with a girl he likes. The two of them are shy with each other, neither wanting to make the first move: “Our Juvenalia / Had taught us both to wait, / Not to publish feeling / And regret it all too late.” The poem utilizes shorter, breathless lines with end rhymes
, mimicking the nervous fluttering of first love as they walk along the river.
The final poem in the volume is “Personal Helicon.” Drawing on Greek mythology, specifically the tale of Narcissus and Echo, he recounts his childhood fancies with the eye of an adult. He describes the kinds of wells he loved as a child, the dark and mysterious ones, the terrifying ones with foxglove growing nearby (a poison plant) and rats (his biggest fear), and the ones so clear he could see his own reflection. The imagery reminds the reader of a fairy tale, but by the end of the poem, Heaney has grown up and moved on from such childish things—or so he claims. Instead of staring into springs and wells for his reflection, he uses poetry to see himself.