Preparing for Heaney: Death of a Naturalist. OCR A level NEA

Preparing for NEA: Death of a Naturalist, Heaney.


This summer I am reading Heaney’s first anthology: Death of a Naturalist, as preparation for the OCR A level NEA close-study-task, which I will be teaching next term.

As usual, it is not necessary to teach explicitly the whole anthology, but to look closely at 5 or 6 poems before passing the baton to the students for their own exploration of the material.

The NEA in question is marked for AO1 and AO2, and requires no contextual engagement in the eventual essay, though it is hard to read these poems without an awareness of the young Heaney, writing in the early 60s- Turkeys Observed and Docker date from ’62, Death of a Naturalist and Advancement of Learning from ’63 and the rest of the set from later dates prior to the ’66 publication. The set predates the ‘Troubles’, therefore, yet the young Heaney, a Catholic in the protestant North would not be unaware of the atmosphere of tension around such sectarian issues in his native Co. Derry.  He implied when interviewed for the book ‘Stepping Stones’ that the Troubles were not as much a cause of his military imagery, employed throughout the collection, as the many films and TV programmes broadcast on the BBC at the time about WW2, so I do not wish the idea to be overstated in any eventual analysis, but the question remains – is the repetitive military imagery part of the ‘digging’ process -the unearthing of what he calls in ‘Personal Helicon’ his wish to set ‘the darkness echoing’?

OCR offer a range of potential tasks for these poems – the topics suggested: Aging, attraction, conflict, family, place, relationships, self-discovery, mastery of fear, time and innocence and experience. They offer some poems which they feel link well: Childhood experience – Blackberry Picking and Personal Helicon, Childhood – Advancement of Learning or Mid Term Break, Growing up in rural Ireland – Advancement of Learning, Early Purges, Mid Term Break, Death of a Naturalist, and for Irish heritage – Docker, At a Potato Digging, Storm on the Island, Eliza.  My approach will be to have these in mind and to base our exploration on a small range of poems: Digging, Advancement of Learning, Mid Term break, Personal Helicon, Storm on the Island and Churning Day. Of these, I will use Advancement of Learning as my starting point, simply because I feel it sums up several of the ideas above – aging, innocence and experience, mastery of fear, childhood experience for example, as well as linking well to other poems – allowing reference to the whole anthology.


An Advancement of Learning.

The title is both a clear description of the events of the poem and a piece of Intertextuality which links the poem to Francis Bacon’s philosophy of 1605. Briefly, the philosophy establishes the idea of knowledge derived from empirical experimentation – growth by experience – part of the epistemological ideas that knowledge is derived form experience, scepticism and reason.

As a starting point, this is interesting since one could argue that the poem being written so early in terms of the anthology as a whole, suggests that across the poems, the empirical process can be seen imparting knowledge to the young man growing up in post-war Northern Ireland.



An Advancement of Learning



I took the embankment path
(As always, deferring
The bridge).  The river nosed past,
Pliable, oil-skinned, wearing

A transfer of gables and sky.
Hunched over the railing,
Well away from the road now, I
Considered the dirty-keeled swans.

Something slobbered curtly, close,
Smudging the silence: a rat
Slimed out of the water and
My throat sickened so quickly that

I turned down the path in cold sweat
But God, another was nimbling
Up the far bank, tracing its wet
Arcs on the stones. Incredibly then

I established a dreaded
Bridgehead. I turned to stare
With deliberate, thrilled care
At my hitherto snubbed rodent.

He clockworked aimlessly a while,
Stopped, back bunched and glistening,
Ears plastered down on his knobbed skull,
Insidiously listening.

The tapered tail that followed him,
The raindrop eye, the old snout:
One by one I took all in.
He trained on me. I stared him out

Forgetting how I used to panic
When his grey brothers scraped and fed
Behind the hen-coop in our yard,
On ceiling boards above my bed.

This terror, cold, wet-furred, small-clawed,
Retreated up a pipe for sewage.
I stared a minute after him.
Then I walked on and crossed the bridge.




Typical of many poems in the group, Heaney focuses on an everyday event in his childhood, and uses it to establish his development from the innocent child to a more experienced figure, capable of quashing fear by careful investigation of the object of that fear. He will return to the same embankment in the poem Twice Shy, in which he explores another element of fear – that of the fear of sexual fulfilment – the rats are long gone, almost as if the poem is written by the young man who emerges from the end of this poem.

The form is that of quatrains which struggle to settle into an Iambic tread, before the calm of the last line – the neat tetrameter suggesting that fear is left far behind, in the trochaic-substitution world of stanzas 3-5. IN these stanzas there is little rhythmic peace – stanza 3 opens with a trochaic line shorn of the last unstressed syllable, as though reflecting the curt sound which throws the young man into a panic, and although iambs do reassert themselves in the last line, the enjambment ensures that the rhythmic impulse drives the reader into stanza four, where the fight continues. The caesura after ‘But God’, bringing him up short before the iambs and trochee substitutions combine to create a sense of excited movement, coupled with Heaney’s coined verb ‘nimbling’ derived from the adjective ‘nimble’ which casts the rat as agile and young, moving briskly.

Such shifts from noun or adjective to verb are common in this poem – slimed, clockworked’ – as are examples of military terminology being used in this civilian context, suggesting the inner battle being waged between innocence and experience perhaps. Indeed, we see that the river ‘nosed’ past before Heaney established a ‘bridgehead’ and the rat ‘trained’ on him as though a sniper, before it ‘retreated’ -a vanquished foe, returning to the sewage pipe and symbolically being flushed out of Heaney’s system thereby.  The technique is seen in many of the poems in this collection: In Trout, the fish is identified by its military lexis – a ‘fat gun barrel’ with numerous other examples of the same idea in the poem. Perhaps most famously, in Digging, the poem which is placed first in the collection, Heaney coins the simile ‘snug as a gun’ to reflect his ease with a pen. It is easy to see an immediate link to the Troubles here, but Heaney saw none. Interviewed in ‘Stepping Stones he says that he was ‘responding to an entirely phonetic prompt… a kind of sonic chain dictated by the inner ear…’  We cannot ignore this, and the ‘uh’ sound he refers to is a feature of his writing, such as the rhythms which ‘slugged and thumped’ in Churning Day making this part of Heaney’s sound-world and linked to his aural memory of the dialects around him in his youth.

Such sounds are a rich part of the various examples of assonance found throughout the poems, from the ‘nicking and slicing’ of Digging (in contrast to the alliterative recreation of the soil heard in the ‘gravelly ground’) to the ‘bells knelling’ in Mid Term Break.

In Advancement the young Heaney closely regards his nemesis and begins to grow – he sees instead of Rat the ‘raindrop eye’ and the ‘old snout’ as the ‘terror’ shrinks and becomes ’wet-furred’ and poses no threat to the boy and none to the teenager in Twice Shy, who confidently takes this path again. Only in Personal Helicon does the figure of the rat reappear, as one of his foes ‘slapped’ across his reflected image in a deep well, prior to his realisation that such focus on one’s own reflection was an immature activity which led him onto deeper exploration of the darkness which lies beneath.

Such darkness is the basis for an exploration of Digging -a poem in which Heaney establishes himself as continuing in a line of men who sought the best by hard labour. Heaney is no labouring man and feels the weight of heritage on his shoulders. He decides to emulate his forebears by digging with his ‘squat’ pen – neat and well-balanced and carrying all the power of a weapon in the right hands – to find the ‘good turf’ which can only be found in the depths and will set the ‘darkness echoing’ and serve to place him in his world: that of the young poet emerging into adulthood in the 1960s.

On this journey we find childhood memories which serve to indicate the difference between young and old, or innocence and experience. In Churning Day, the battalions of the paraphernalia of butter manufacture are rolled out in military terms – the ‘pottery bombs’ which will in time be personified and emerge to ‘spill… their insides’ into the churns, are set against a final stanza which looks back and realises that all the magic of the ‘gold flecks’ dancing, has to be seen in the context of a home which ‘stinks’ and is full of a scent redolent of a ‘sulphur mine’. The magic has been made by his mother’s hard work. The fractured short sentences in ‘Arms ached./Hands Blistered…’ are suggestive of bursts of pain inducing labour rather than of a continuously flowing activity. This is a wonderful poem in which Heaney explores metaphor such as butter as ‘coagulated sunlight’ – a life giving force aptly being stirred by a ‘whisky muddler’ – a tool for creating the water of life. Another memory is explored in Mid term break – famous for a last line which condenses and sums up the whole: the first time we learn of the victim is in this terse line focusing on size and age and given the tread of a funeral march by the Spondee substitution in the second foot, before the caesura. The poem captures the sense of unease, accentuated by the idea that ’whispers informed strangers’ of his age. In Co. Derry, even in the 60s, informers were pariahs and the link between such behaviour in the parlour and in the wider world is clear. In a poem with no direct communication within the family – The baby ‘cooing’, father crying and a mother who ‘coughed out tearless sighs, this only direct communication between those present is worryingly furtive and unsettling. Although Heaney is given time the next day in a church like bedroom, complete with candles and pure white flowers, the abiding memory is of distance and a lack of communication.

Perhaps his Irish heritage is a reason for the reticence here. Catholics in the North were a minority and Heaney explores his Irishness (as opposed to Britishness) elsewhere in the collection. In a sense, the ideas discussed thus far could have derived from any rural upbringing, but there are hints: in Digging we are given not only a link via potatoes which will be explored further in ‘At a potato digging’ (the two titles suggesting a clear relationship) but also via Toner’s Bog. This is am link via his Father and Grandfather, clearly figures of admiration (‘By God…Just like his old man’ placed in a two line stanza of its own) who are indicators of his heritage, an idea seen more clearly in Storm on the Island in which the opening ‘we build our houses squat’ suggests not only the architecture of the West Coast of Ireland, but also a sense of houses as lineage, built thus to avoid storms and with walls rooted in rock suggesting a direct link to the very fabric of the land being farmed. These are people who have no easy company – the absence of trees to ‘raise a tragic chorus in a gale – serve to protect them from unnecessary distraction though will also ensure that their fears remain undisclosed – after all ‘it is a huge nothing that we fear’. This is not an absence of reason to fear, rather a recognition of the vastness of the fear itself -as large as space and as wide as the wind, and possibly a nothing borne of denial. When asked what we fear, we reply, ‘nothing’ in preference to exploring our inner fears. Isolated on the island, this is the situation – the idea of nothing carrying the same resonance of an unidentified fear as Polyphemus’ ‘nobody’ when tricked on his island by Odysseus – there is something, but it is not to be named.

The ideas of Irishness explored in the famine pair of At a Potato digging and Eliza, comes to the fore in Docker. One of the earliest poems in the collection (1962) and evidently one in which Heaney is prepared to explore the sectarian divide of his homeland. For this is a violently broken country. Heaney’s vision is of a powerful, brutish man: ‘sledgehead jaw’,  who is implacable in his vision of the relationship with his God – he sees the resurrection in a factory horn rather than in any spiritual manifestation and his language is that of imperatives which hit like ‘rivets’ as they brook no argument from the recipient. There is one way – his, and his wife and children know enough to be fearful when this brute returns home. Heaney can imagine this hand ‘dropping a hammer on a Catholic’ (as he commented: ‘Iambic you know, but hearable on the street’) and in doing so allows a comment that ‘that kind of thing could happen again’, prefacing it with ‘oh yes’ as though in conversation and seeking to confirm to a listener that he knows what could happen. For all this, though, the man is Irish – ‘strong and blunt as a Celtic cross’ – a shared heritage, yet one which is indelibly fractured.


Stepping Stones:

Product details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (6 Aug. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571242537
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571242535