The naturalist is obsessed with transience – Harry Hayden Clark
On its original appearance in 1966, over forty years ago, Seamus Heaney’s first major collection, Death of a Naturalist, won the Cholmondeley Award, the Eric Gregory Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. I would have been seven at the time and so I can relate strongly to the title poem’s narrator who I cannot see as being anything other than a boy about that age then, maybe a year or two older. I’ve written before about my lack of interest in nature poetry but I was not always disinterested in Nature. I was born in a city, about as near to the heart of Glasgow as one can get, just a short walk from George Square, but when I was nine-months-old my parents moved house and I spent the rest of my childhood in a little Council estate on the edge of town. Across the road was a small run-down farm, a river with a salmon leap which we enjoyed running across as kids and then you were in the countryside. In the early sixties parents didn’t feel the same need to cling onto their children for fear of what might happen to them and so it wasn’t uncommon for me, alone most often or with some of the neighbourhood kids, to traipse through the fields, long grasses and trees all around looking for adventure. There were plenty of old buildings to explore, too, the sand quarry, the golf course and just beyond that the frog pond.
I’m not sure when a pond turns into a lake but this was quite a big pond, completely enclosed and artificially created I’m sure. It’s main attraction were the pipes that had been tipped there, big concrete affairs, wide enough to walk through and shelter in when it was pouring down, that tumbled down a steep slope and ended somewhere underwater. Who knows, perhaps there were more underwater than above it. Some kids would drag a pallet and a couple of oil drums from the local industrial estate and construct a raft but I was far too afraid of water at that age to suggest or agree to anything so reckless; I didn’t learn to swim until I was a teenager and I wouldn’t call myself a good swimmer now but I could probably save my own life.
The pond had its seasons. There were times we went there looking for brambles, other times to play on the ice when it froze over (not that I ever risked going out any great distance), it was a good place to find caterpillars and then there was frog season. In the British Isles, common frogs typically hibernate from late October to January. They will re-emerge as early as February if conditions are favourable, and migrate to bodies of water such as garden ponds to spawn. February still sounds cold to me. Back then the seasons felt like proper seasons, like the seasons in the rhymes; I don’t feel that now.
I know I collected tadpoles as a kid but I have to say I can’t ever remember scooping frogspawn into jars and carrying it home nor can I remember any of my tadpoles ever surviving long enough to turn into frogs.
Later in the year we’d return to the frog pond and there would be tiny froglets everywhere on land. As we trudged through the grass – usually following a rabbit path – it’s hard to say how many we ended up treading on but over the years I bet I’ve killed hundreds although never deliberately; I wasn’t that kind of kid. The atmosphere was always a bit different once the frogs were out and about. I always found the place a bit creepy then as if I was outnumbered, which I was, by thousands to one, but I couldn’t say that I was afraid, not in any real sense (they weren’t interested in us in the slightest) although there was a . . . I’m going to go with ‘potentiality’ . . . a potentiality in the air, a sense that something might happen. Put it this way, when I read what Heaney wrote in ‘Omphalos’:
Around that badger's hole there hung a field of dangerous force. This was the realm of bogeys.
I understood exactly what he meant.
Toads were rare but I’ve run across a few in my time. I remember driving home and noticing one in the middle of the road and this fellow must have been six inches wide – a wonderful specimen. I stopped the car and carried him over to the riverbank. There was one in our back garden a few years back which I dashed upstairs with to show Carrie. She says she’s rarely seen me as delighted over anything. And it’s true, I was. It was like being a wee boy again and we all know the wee boys we once were never die; they get swallowed whole by the adults we are forced to become but they never disappear completely.
As most of my regular readers will know I’m very poorly read when it comes to poetry. Lots of reasons for this but even more excuses. Anyway a few times my friend Dave King has mentioned his fondness for the poetry of Seamus Heaney amongst others and so I thought I would give him a try. And, as I could only name one poem by him (even though I’d never read it), I thought I would start there. The only other thing about him I’d actually read was an essay talking about his Bog Poems when I was researching Milligan and Murphy:
Death of a Naturalist
All the 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 dragon-flies, 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 jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the 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 bull frog
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
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.
I find Heaney’s take on events an interesting one, clearly a very different one to mine in some ways and yet at the same time one I find I can relate to, too. Once the frogs were fully-grown my frog pond was a different place in fact you had to search to find a frog on land and I don’t recall being deafened by the croaking of a thousand frogs either. They must have been there – where else would they go? – but it felt like they’d all just vanished. I suppose if aliens abduct humans and cows they might have an interest in frogs, too.
Heaney is twenty years older than I am but I don’t expect his childhood was that different from mine. It’s only in recent years that there’s been a real change in how kids spend their time.
He was born in Mossbawn, just outside Derry in Northern Ireland; he later moved to the Republic of Ireland but he has moved back and forth a few times in his adult life. His parents were Catholic farmers and he was the eldest of nine children. His father, Patrick Heaney, owned and worked a small farm of fifty acres, but his real commitment was to cattle dealing with his brother, Heaney’s uncle. Heaney initially attended Anahorish Primary School but when he was twelve-years-old, he won a scholarship to St. Columb's College, a Catholic boarding school situated in Derry. In 1957, Heaney travelled to Belfast to study English Language and Literature at the Queen's University of Belfast. During his time in Belfast he found a copy of Ted Hughes' Lupercal – published in 1960 – and this was a revelation to him:
I remember the day I opened Ted Hughes’ Lupercal in the Belfast University Library. [There was] a poem called ‘View of a Pig’ and in my childhood we’d killed pigs on the farm, and I’d seen pigs shaved, hung up, and so on . . . Suddenly the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life. I had had some notion that modern poetry was far beyond the likes of me – there was Eliot and so on – so I got a thrill out of trusting my own background, and, I started a year later, I think.
I didn’t read ‘View of a Pig’ until probably about 1972 and it failed to move me. The same went for ‘Hawk Roosting’ and ‘Pike’ which were the other poems we were made to read in English. Now, if they’d made me read, ‘Bullfrog’ that might have been different but none of these other poems had anything to do with my life which is perhaps why Larkin’s take on ‘Toads’ was more to my tastes although to be fair I’ve always nurtured a similar fondness for work as for toads.
From what I’ve been reading it looks as this poem might not have been the best place to start off reading Heaney. The work is clearly indebted to Hughes but there are worse poets to emulate; I was always fond of Hughes’ poem ‘The Jaguar’ especially the final stanza:
More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
A poem dense with the mucky thickness that is often the trademark of a Heaney poem...reading Heaney is like trudging through clay.
so maybe this wasn’t such a bad place to start either.
One thing is clear from this particular poem and that is that Heaney is less interested in technique – by that I mean showing off – than he is in communication. He, however, has a broader definition that I have. I found this quote by him from the essay ‘Feeling into Words’:
Craft is what you can learn from other verse. Craft is the skill of making … Technique … involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of metre, rhythm and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality … And if I were asked for a figure who represents pure technique, I would say a water diviner.
This doesn’t mean the poem is not riddled with poetic techniques – alliteration (‘wait and watch’), metaphor (‘gauze of sound’), simile (‘like clotted water’), oxymoron (‘gargled delicately’), pararhymes (‘fill jampots full’) and onomatopoeia (‘slap and plop’) – but these are used to enhance communication, to make the real more real. Heaney is interested in what he calls "a musically satisfying order of sounds" and it’s clear even in this early poem that he has chosen his words with care; it’s not enough for them to mean, they also have to evoke, and as such I find it hard to understand Larkin’s criticism of Heaney’s poetry. To his credit Larkin wasn’t one for publicly criticising poetry he didn’t like but in private he told Anthony Thwaite:
Heaney, to be fair, also struggled with Larkin’s verse. His discussions of Larkin's work are apparently marked by an undertone of concession and reservation. He wrote:
He offers "the melody of intelligence," refusing to allow "the temptations of melody to chloroform the exactions of his common sense" (GT 17). These judgments oddly parallel Larkin's criticisms of Heaney for being "too-clever" and having "no tune."
Apart from Hughes, there is another poet who, not surprisingly, influenced Heaney: William Wordsworth. It’s worth noting what he writes in his introduction to a new selection of Wordsworth's poetry that was published in 2006:
As a child, William Wordsworth imagined he heard the moorlands breathing down his neck; he rowed in panic when he thought a cliff was pursuing him across moonlit water; and once, when he found himself on the hills east of Penrith Beacon, beside a gibbet where a murderer had been executed, the place and its associations were enough to send him fleeing in terror to the beacon summit.
Every childhood has its share of such uncanny moments.
Frogs never really bothered me but there were another couple of “uncanny moments” of suddenly becoming aware of Nature that I do remember. The first, although I have no idea which of these two events actually came first chronologically, was when I was walking home from the river one evening and suddenly I realised that I was surrounded by slugs. Big, black, sticky slugs – hundreds of them easily. They were on every plant and blade of grass it seemed. Now there was no way they were all going to rise up and have at me but it was nevertheless an unforgettable experience. The second was with my dad. We’d been out for a walk and as the sun was starting the sky began to fill with birds. They used to gather on the roof of one of the factories over the hill from where we lived and just as we were approaching the foot of the hill they took off and the sky went black for several minutes. I have never seen that many birds in my life. There must have been millions of them, tens of millions, I don’t know, the numbers are meaningless. And there were other less dramatic encounters with nature like coming face to face with a fox in a railway yard so I have to wonder why I never connected with the poetry of Ted Hughes but I never did.
This poem by Heaney though seems to straddle what I loved about Larkin and . . . I won’t say ‘hated’ but failed to connect with in Hughes, at least the Hughes I read as a teenager. There is a strong morality to ‘Death of a Naturalist’, not so much a moral per se, but it leaves me hanging in the same way that much of Larkin’s poetry does, though, especially ‘Mr Bleaney’.
So what do I see in the poem? Okay, he’s split the piece into two sections. The first stanza is twenty-one lines long and the second is twelve. Had this been my poem I might have been tempted to divide it into three parts, the first at the pond, the second at home and school and the third back at the pond although I have no objection to his choice to split it into light and dark, innocent and not-quite-as-innocent, before and after – whatever way you want to look at it. It’s not as simple as pretty and ugly because from the very onset the imagery is far from pretty with words like ‘festered’ and ‘rotted’ painting a picture of the decay from which life rises. The poem begins with the death of nature: “In the midst of life we are in death.” A true naturalist would be well aware that this is the way of things but unexpectedly this is not a poem about a naturalist but rather a young boy. I suppose he could just as easily have called the poem ‘Death of a Herpetologist’ but if we ignore the dictionary definition of ‘naturalist’ and take the word literally it suggests a person who does things naturally, a natural-ist. It’s unnatural to put frogspawn in jam jars. Before that he may well have been content simply to be a part of nature but once he assumes the role of the Naturalist of the title the natural-ist – if I can distinguish between the two – dies. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the title. There is also the possibility that what dies are the boy’s aspirations of becoming a naturalist once he starts to realise what’s involved in the job.
Collecting frogspawn is not something new. He’s done it “every spring” but this year it’s different. This year when he returns he hears something in the croaking of the frogs that he has not heard before, a malevolence towards him. Of course the frogs are just croaking as they have always croaked, the change of tone is purely in his own head. I have often wondered about the expression ‘loss of innocence.’ I get the idea but if innocence is lost what replaces it? Guilt? In this poem the boy returns to the scene of the crime – why do so many criminals feel the need to do that? – but he returns with an awareness that he has done something wrong. In many respects the scene is the same, dirty and smelly, but what are missing (at least what the boy fails to notice) are the “bluebottles … dragon-flies [and] spotted butterflies;” the only sound in the second stanza is the chorus of the frog army. He uses words like ‘cocked’ (as in cocking a gun) and ‘grenades’ – weapons of warfare (do the ‘sails’ belong to warships?) – and he talks about his presence as an invader who has to make his way across a minefield covered in cow pats; the frogs are now kings and prepared to war with him if their ‘threats’ don’t scare him off. Some people have tried to impose a political reading on this piece – he’s Irish and therefore must be political! – but I think it’s stretching a point too far frankly although certainly growing up in the kind of environment he did would have meant that military imagery would have been something he would have thought of easily.
I’m not sure what to make of the name ‘Miss Walls’ but the language used here suggests she’s talking to very young children, perhaps as young as five and yet if he’s been already collecting frogspawn for years that feels incongruous, not right. Also the fact that the second stanza begins “one hot day” and not “one year” suggesting the passage of a decent amount of time makes me wonder just what age the kid really is. The loss of innocence is something we tend to associate with the move from puberty to adolescence but perhaps it is really something we lose gradually over many years. When the teacher talks about the frogs she anthropomorphises them – they become ‘mummies’ and ‘daddies’ – and perhaps this is the moment when the fact that he has captured and imprisoned their children hits home although we never learn what happens to the tadpoles it should be noted.
Or perhaps trying to pin this all down to a single literal year is wrong. Read metaphorically the imagery in the second stanza reflects changes that he has (or would very soon) experience as his own body matured and although the language used to describe how the frogspawn comes into existence is simplistic it does mean that Miss Walls has to introduce the children to sex and procreation. Heaney only can devote a few words to what goes on in the class but doubtless this lesson took some time. Growing up has been compressed into a single summer which is all the frogs need to move from frogspawn to adult frog although it’s normal for the common frog to live for up to eight years; toads usually manage up to ten to twelve years. This, incidentally, is where the poem is inaccurate in its description of frogs as having ‘blunt heads’ as this is a characteristic of toads. Or perhaps, as was occasionally the case with my frog pond, these were actually toads and he didn’t know the difference yet; it was a long time before I could.
I decided research if there was a deeper meaning to ‘flax’ and, more importantly, ‘flax dam’:
When grown for fibre, flax is harvested after the pale blue flowers have fallen, but before the seed ripens, and because it is the stalk that is being harvested it is not cut, but pulled up by the roots. ... The beets (sheaves) are carried as soon as possible to be steeped (drowned or dubbed) in the flax dam or 'lint hole' where soft peaty water has been standing for some days to warm up ... The process of retting (rotting) takes from seven to twelve days and is soon advertised by a foul and penetrating odour as the core or 'bone' of the stalk decays.
This is far different from my experience. I can see mucking around a flax dam as something kids might set out to endure – kids love undergoing trials like that – or it might be that youngsters aren’t as offended by bad smells as are adults and the prize of the frogspawn was worth putting up with the malodorous pong. Certainly there were some reeds around my pond but I can’t recall any particular odours.
I’ve managed to find a few more of Heaney’s poems from that time. I don’t have any books by him but he appears in a few anthologies. ‘Blackberry Picking’ is a very similar piece and, as I mentioned above, this is something we did annually. I can even remember my whole family going out blackberry picking though I think most of the berries that survived the trip home ended up being eaten with sugar – just imagine how bad that was for us – because I can’t see my mum making jam; perhaps once. ‘Blackberry Picking’ is also a poem about transformation, the key lines being:
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too.
In ‘The Barn’ the familiar becomes inexplicably menacing:
The dark gulfed like a roof-space. I was chaff
To be pecked up when birds shot through the air-slits.
I lay face-down to shun the fear above.
The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats.
However in ‘An Advancement of Learning’ the narrator has grown up a little and proves it by facing down a rat:
This terror, cold, wet-furred, small-clawed,
Retreated up a pipe of sewage.
I stared a minute after him.
Then I walked on and crossed the bridge.
In much the same way as sailors personify the sea Heaney treats nature as a living entity, not just a variety of living things something that might “clutch” him and drag him under. Perhaps this is where his fascination developed around 1970 for the Iron Age bodies that had been found in bogs throughout Ireland and Denmark. As much as Heaney could be described a nature poet what strikes me here in this collection is Heaney’s fear of nature and the ways in which the commonplace can become threatening or evil. This is exactly what I got from ‘Mr. Bleaney’ in which the ordinary and everyday becomes menacing. I have to wonder just what Heaney’s experiences of nature were growing up. As the eldest child it must have been anticipated that Seamus might follow in his father's footsteps and yet he chose to reject that lifestyle. This is probably evidenced in the first poem of the collection, ‘Digging’ in which he sits in his room writing whilst his father digs outside:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
You can see the transformation by comparing the first and last stanzas of ‘Personal Helicon’:
As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
In his 1995 Nobel acceptance speech Heaney noted that his writing, like his life, has been “a journey where each point of arrival … turned out to be a stepping-stone rather than a destination,” but every journey has to start with a first step, a stepping away from some place and that place is one we have likely been used to calling ‘home’. I don’t know where Heaney’s poetry goes from here. I do know he becomes more of a political poet but that’s about it. Suffice to say that this exercise has been a worthwhile one and I think I might be keen to see where he goes after this. What I do find interesting is that the metaphor of “stepping-stones” was one he used as far back as 1974 in his essay ‘Feeling into Words’ talking about his early attempts at poetry:
I was in love with words themselves, but had no sense of a poem as a whole structure and no experience of how the successful achievement of a poem could be a stepping-stone in your life.
I get that. I get what he means when he talks about a poet as someone who reveals “the self to the self.” I can look back on my own early poems and see myself testing to see if the next ‘stone’ is stable. What I found myself appreciating about all the poems I read from Death of a Naturalist is what Paul Hurt calls “matter-of-factness is raised to an inspired level.” It makes me a little sad that I wasn’t introduced to Heaney a long time ago.
Let me leave you with the film On Nostalgia & On Reality which is a dramatisation of the poem and includes a reading by Heaney himself.
Paul Williams, Critical appreciation of the works of Seamus Heaney
 Seamus Heaney quoted in Terry Gifford, Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry, pp.98,99
 Ed. George MacBeth, Poetry 1900 to 1975, p.345
 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, p.47
 Philip Larkin, Selected Letters: 1940-1985. Ed. Anthony Thwaite quoted in James Booth, ‘The turf cutter and the nine-to-five man: Heaney, Larkin, and "the spiritual intellect's great work." - poets Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin’, Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1997
 Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, p. 17 quoted in James Booth, ‘The turf cutter and the nine-to-five man: Heaney, Larkin, and "the spiritual intellect's great work." - poets Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin’, Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1997
 See Anthony Purdy, ‘The bog body as mnemotope: nationalist archaeologies in Heaney and Tournier - Seamus Heaney, Michel Tournier - Critical Essay’, Style, Spring 2002
 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, p.45
 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, p.49