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Death of A Naturalist

Seamus Heaney

About “Death of A Naturalist”

Heaney’s sly, unsettling “Death of a Naturalist” tells the story of a bad experience that transformed the speaker’s childhood fascination with nature into fear and awe. The “Naturalist” refers not to an actual scientific expert, but simply an inquisitive child.

The death referred to is metaphorical; the loss of innocent enthusiasm in response to half-understood realities. The idea of collecting and observing natural things including frogspawn is almost universal in childhood. The poem conveys the fact that harsh realities, including sexuality, must invade a child’s consciousness.

The young speaker is ultimately terrified that the ‘angry frogs’ will seek vengeance for his having stolen their spawn, and that he deserved it. So, the child’s relationship with nature isn’t simply fascinated wonder, but involves fear. The metamorphosis of the tadpoles into frogs is a metaphor for the change in the child’s perceptions and the awakening of sexual awareness.

The learning process is accompanied by loss and revulsion, and the sense that childhood innocence is undermined too soon by adult knowledge. This was a perception that William Wordsworth, the early nineteenth Century Romantic poet explores in ‘The Prelude’.

Fair seed time had my sould and I grew up
Fostererd alike by beauty and by fear.

Structure
The poem is divided into two stanzas of 21 and 12 lines respectively. The break or volta, where the child loses innocence and becomes aware that life is not so simple, comes at the beginning of line 22, with ‘Then’.

There is no regular rhyme scheme or metre, but instead Heaney uses enjambment, varied sentence length and varying pace to convey the nuances of the story. He also uses internal rhyme , as in lines three and four stanza two where ‘bass’ and ‘gross’ are consonantly rhymed. These devices give the poem unity and cohesion.

Language and Imagery
The overriding theme is of the child’s transition to awareness of the unpleasant realities of life, including sexuality, aggression and revenge.

Heaney’s style is strong and muscular. He doesn’t flinch from unpleasant realities, as exemplified in the use of words like ‘slobber’ and ‘fester’. The effect is powerful rather than lyrical. In this poem he adopts the voice of the adult looking back, the voice of a child, and the child’s imitation of his teacher’s expressions, as in ‘daddy frog’ and ‘mammy frog’. What is specially significant is what isn’t said … the reproductive sexual process that creates the next generation of frogs.

Buy Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996

"Death of A Naturalist" Track Info

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