Seamus Heaney – Death of a Naturalist


This poem addresses disillusionment and people’s changing perspectives as they age. The speaker attempts to divine – dramatized through the stanza break – a pivotal moment in childhood when his attitude towards the world changed. The poem refuses to allow this clear distinction, and presents obliquely the difficulty we have in kn owing ourselves and understanding our origins. The antithetical themes of ‘Death’ in the title and fecundity in nature betray a deep-set anxiety about mortality as the root cause of this self-examination attempted in the poem.

The poem is structured so as to encourage a binary reading of the speaker’s recollections. The first stanza might be seen to present an idyllic childhood, with the nostalgic tone of ‘I would fill jampotfuls’. In the classroom scene, the simplicity of the language allows us to see through the speaker’s childhood eyes. The naive amazement of ‘You can tell the weather by frogs too’ has the voice of a child behind it. The stanza break is emphasized by the  fairy-tale expression ‘Then one hot day’. We are forced to view this as the pivotal moment – the part of the fable where fortunes are reversed and everything changes. Accompanying this is a new tone of disgust in the voice of the poem, conveyed particularly in the vulgarity of the description, ‘their blunt heads farting, / I sickened, turned and ran’. The speaker wants to imagine this as the moment of disillusionment about nature and life – moving from the idyllic childhood world where tadpoles burst from jelly to the muck and ugliness of the adult world.

We are prevented from accepting this account, however, by the ambivalent attitude the poem takes towards nature from the start. The rural image created by the archaic sounding ‘flax-dam’ in the first line is interrupted by ‘Of the townland’ in the second, where the rhythm also breaks with the iambic pentameter established in the first line. Also we notice that the proliferation of images of decay begins not in the second stanza but in the first with ‘festered’, and ‘bluebottles’. The pre-disillusionment recollection is not protected from the speaker’s present, more pessimistic perspective. Rich onomatopoeia in ‘gurgling’, ‘sods’ and ‘spotted butterflies’ drenches the scene in colour but also creates a literal ‘gauze of sound’ – an over abundance of guttural sounds that suggests a stifling, ‘heavy’ atmosphere. We are made to see that there is no empirical difference between the world of the frogspawn and that of the frogs. The speaker’s attempt to define and rationalize the change in his perspective is shown to be inadequate as a means of explaining what defies understanding.

This discourse on the difficulty of knowing one’s origins comes out in the poem’s ambivalence towards fertility. The primal violence of the ‘fattening dots burst’ and the ‘thick slobber / of frogspawn’ contrasts with the facile description offered by the teacher conveyed in the repetitions ‘And how… and how’. Clearly there is something alluring in this primal fecundity that draws the young child – the dense language can be seen as another expression of extreme overpowering fertility. By the end the change that has occurred is a new revulsion to the process of birth, which now becomes something malignant and ‘unnatural’, ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’. This image of the hidden monster invites us to view the poem from a Freudian perspective. Here the child’s fixation with conception and fertility is an expression of the family romance. The dramatic shift to an attitude of repulsion towards mother and father symbols in the frogs can be seen as the flowering of the Oedipus complex, with the lurking malevolence in the lake representing the ever-present id. Such a reading certainly contributes to the poem’s confrontation of the way we see our childhoods, but the antithesis between ‘Death’ in the title and the abundance of nature in the poem would remain unaccounted for. These can be seen as reflecting the source of worries about origins – a fear of mortality. Like the first stanza of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium with its ‘salmon-crowded seas’, this poem exhibits a revulsion to all things growing and reproducing because they provide a damning contrast to the frail and ageing soul.

This poem creates a powerful but ambivalent view of nature as both rich and fertile but also malignant and repulsive. It questions the ways in which we attempt to reconcile ourselves with our past, and suggests that doing so is much more difficult than any notion of a  revelatory event or psychological complex – there is something inevitably left out by all of these attempts.

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