A visceral writer of lyrical beauty and wrought iron grasp of words; Seamus Heaney is one of the poetic visionaries of the 20th Century, whose art is drenched in dedication of location as he paints the picture of what it was to grow up in Derry, Northern Ireland.
Caught in existentialist confusion and terror, his work is doused in the fears potent throughout the unconscious of humanity, and the beautiful disgust present in the perversity of his descriptions is why so many; both the general public and literary critics fell in love with his work.
This is my analysis of one of his poems, that I found when studying it, had a great impact on me when I first read it, and has continued to do so over the years when I return.
Analysis of Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney
Poem is written in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, this held to keep the rhythm of the piece steady. The long clunky lines and heavy description keep the pace of the poem slow, gradually building, as if creating suspense. Demonstrates their is a passing of time for the subject of the poem, from where it begins and ends.
Lines are made of one stressed, then unstressed syllable (da-DUM) rhythm. Five of these make up each line, again to keep that steady even pace of rhythm up through the entire reading.
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.
Flax – a plant that grows annually, has blue flowers. Flax-dam – muddy patch of Earth that softens the flax. The process is smelly.
“The heart” “Heavy-headed” – personifying the location. Making the location come alive to us, by making it relatable to our own human experiences. Draws us into the poem, makes it easier for us to imagine being there.
“Festered” this is what happens to infected wounds on our skin. Using medical terminology to give added depth to the nature around him, that at the time has peeked his curiosity. To a young boy, the scene around him is wondrous, it seems as though everything around him is teeming with life. He is attempting to recreate this perspective for the audience.
“Festered” “Punishing” “Sweltered” “Rotted” Negative adjectives – strong, powerful and provocative. Connotations of suffering, hot and clammy atmosphere, pictures of rotting and putrid scenery. Heaney is bringing the poem to life in his description. The poem is written from the perspective of a young boy, where the world around though magical is also scary. Strong mental picture is created in the readers mind, and it paints a grotesque image.
Bubbles gargled delicately; bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
“Gargled delicately” – juxtaposing adjectives. Gargling gives the impression of a horrible sound, one we imagine being the back of someone’s throat. It is usually quite a harsh sound. But this one is described as being delicate. The contrast again creates strong imagery for the reader to engage with, using the senses and their experiences to help imagine the scene before this little boy in the poem. It also demonstrates the childlike curiosity where things adults think of as repulsive, hold some kind of wonder and beauty for a child as they wish to understand and explore the world around them.
“Gauze” a medical reference again, using metaphor of a bandage used of humans to make it easier for the audience to understand the actions of the bluebottles.
“Warm thick slobber” – anthropomorphism (personification of inanimate objects) to heighten the sensory impact of the words they are reading. An attempt of Heaney’s part as well to make comparison to nature and humanity, prompting the consideration are human close to nature, are there similarities, or are we as a society very detached from the natural world around us? Have we forgotten it?
“Clotted” as in, blood clots. Another comparison to a physical human behaviour.
“Sound around the smell” use of Synesthesia – using one sense to describe another. This figurative technique is often used in poetry to highlight a specific description and draw the reader’s attention. As it is a mixing of the senses it can convey a confused or excited emotion in the subject of the poetry and adds extra layers of meaning to what is written.
“Best of all” showing us the conflict of feelings the boy has regarding this scene, while the picture before him is grotesque and scary in one way, he also believes it is beautiful and he looks upon it with interest and fondness.
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
Up until this point in the poem Heaney has used comparisons to unite human behaviour in synchronicity with nature and the animals. Now he presents the idea of collecting and gathering elements of it and putting it in jars. It demonstrates the greed of humanity to own and possess these things, which in these lines he sees no issue with. First time we see a discord between humans and how we interact with the world around us.
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
“Fattening dots” contrasted with “nimble swimming tadpoles” one is pejorative, the other positive. Here it presents the idea of aging as graceful, the idea that learning the world and growing up turns us into something better. He is enthralled with the processes of growing up that he is observing in the frogs.
“Daddy frog” “Mammy frog” – another personification, he sees the frogs in the same way he sees other humans, has not yet learnt the distinction between differing species. He thinks of them much in the way he sees his own family. The word mammy also gives us an indication of the child’s dialect, he uses mammy, instead of mum or mummy.
“Bullfrog” this time he does use a technical term, he is using the proper scientific names of the animals he is watching. Shows us the boy is growing up, he is learning new things and he is beginning to notice a difference in the animals and humans. This could signify the idea he is beginning to leave this part of his childhood, that things are beginning to change
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
“Little eggs” to “frogspawn” Distinction again, as he learns the differences of humans and the frogs. Instead of calling them eggs, he refers to the technically correct term for the babies as ‘frogspawn.’ Gives us some indication also of the fascination the boy possesses for nature and the animals, as he is eager to learn more about them – this is a hobby for him, something that he enjoys doing.
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
“Rank with cowdung” “Angry” “Coarse-croaking” Adjectives are all pessimistic, when he has returned to the flax the following summer, though the scene before him is the same, he is looking upon it differently, his opinion appears to have changed from enjoying and finding beauty in this place, to reactions of fear and disgust.
The child’s curiosity that added beauty to this scene has being disposed, the idea of aging is no longer presented as a graceful process where new things are gained, he is now focusing on the idea growing up leads to the loss of things you may have had before, when younger.
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
“Thick with bass chorus” metaphor used to build conceptual imagery, creates a claustrophobic, intense atmosphere in the writers mind. Use of the word thick, makes us think of days when the air is heavy and moist, humid and clammy around the swamp.
“Gross-bellied” “Necks pulsed like sails” “Obscene” the frogs he has looked upon for so long, now seem entirely different to him, so many adjectives are used in this verse perhaps to suggest the surprise the young boy is experiencing as he notices for the first time that he thinks these animals are ugly. He is scared of them; viewing their actions and noises as “threats”
“Cocked” this word is used to compare the frog’s stances to that of a gun ready for firing. He is looking upon the animals as weapons, as something that could hurt him.
“Slap” “Plop” – onomatopoeias. Used this particular kind of adjective to heighten the sensory reaction the audience has when engaging with the poem. By physically hearing the sound we are reading, it makes the scene before us more ‘real’ and syncs the audience’s response to that being experienced by the child in the poem, who is also hearing these things, and causing him to fear the animals before him.
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.
“Grenades” “Blunt” like a knife – War/weaponry lexis – the adjectives he uses compare the frogs to weapons, promoting the idea that he has moved beyond looking at the frogs as companions and he now considers himself and them as enemies.
He makes this reference to war by using the word “vengeance” he is interpreting their behaviour as offensive, that they mean him harm, for what he has done to them – gathering the frog spawn into jars. Shows he now regrets this decision, believes it was wrong and completes his transformation from boy admiring these creatures, to now being a bit older and seeing them as a threat and something to fear.
“Heads farting” “Great slime kings” these frogs have gone beyond being an animal the boy is watching, to transforming in his mind to monsters – this is why these extravagant descriptions are used, they demonstrate the exaggerated view his fear of these animals, have given him, as his imagination runs wild and creates an entirely different perception of these creatures, than the ones he previously held.
“dipped my hand in the spawn would clutch it” appears to prescribe to the human greeting of shaking hands, but unlike the friendly connotations that implies, Heaney has used the word “clutch” to demonstrate the violence behind the exchange in this particular scenario. Signifies much as a handshake is used in either greeting or goodbye between humans, this is the boy’s goodbye to the relationship he previously held with the frogs.