In Death of a Naturalist, the title poem of the collection, Heaney explores ideas which will be key to these poems – the conflict inherent between innocence and experience and the sense of terror which drives a young man towards the life he will eventually lead. The poem has a clear volta in the division between the two stanzas as the terror emerges to replace the innocent pleasure found in tadpoling and the descriptions of animal nature fit for young minds. The title is overbearing in its message – this is no set back, but ‘death’ of the innocent dreams, one of several deaths explored in the poems. The point is clear, once lost, there can be no return to a state of innocence: the apple cannot be returned to the tree.
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.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, 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 jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on 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 bullfrog
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.
In the opening stanza Heaney explores a child’s excitement at the wonder of nature, yet from the opening, there is a clear current of imagery around decay and threat which foreshadows the shift which occurs at the start of stanza 2, introduced by the terse monosyllable ‘then’.
The alliteration in the opening three lines, heavy with F, G, H, T and S gives a weight to the lines similar to the oppressive summer weather suggested by the ‘punishing sun’. Here in town, nature in the form of the flax-dam is rotting – it ‘festered in the heart of the townland’ almost as some cancerous blood clot might in the human body – and is held in place by ‘huge sods’ which by their size give the impression of a drowning being committed. Not only this, but the sounds and sensation of the bluebottles, whose buzzing is a tangible ‘gauze’ around the smell of rot and decay. Yet within this image, the bubbles ‘gargled delicately, an interesting juxtaposing of unpleasant with fascinating ideas, and the boy can enjoy the dragon flies and butterflies which abound.
Perhaps best of all, the frogspawn itself – ‘thick slobber’- captures the mixture of disgust and thrill found by children who seek to play with pots of slime and such like – the disgusting has a fascination for young minds whilst it remains inanimate. The idea of ‘clotted water’ sounds a warning note, however, redolent of blood and certainly unnatural.
Heaney moves the description to the personal by foregrounding the first person pronoun at the start of line 11 and the poem becomes the clear voyage towards experience which can be recognised in many of these poems. After the heavy alliteration of the opening, the line bounce on the alliterative ‘j’ sounds in jampotfuls of jellied/specks and the idea of ‘nimble-swimming tadpoles. We note that nimble-swimming is a compound rather than a pair of unconnected adjectives and the added layer of meaning creates a greater sense of freedom in the action of swimming being described.
This is a child’s world – even at school, the facts of life are given an innocent telling –‘mammy’ and ‘daddy’ convey language fit for a young mind, and the first, in its Irish vernacular adds to a sense of place and of love for young minds. The sex act is as simple as croaking. The teacher, embarrasses moves swiftly to stories about frogs as weather forecasters. Heaney allows the two words ‘In rain’ to fall over onto a line to end the stanza abruptly, as though preparing the reader for the negative shift about to happen.
In Stanza 2, the personal narrative drives the poem as Heaney recalls his first meeting with the bullfrogs who have come to take back their possession before he can lay claim to their offspring. The setting becomes scatological with focus on ‘rank’ grass and ‘cowdung’. The diction is military here. The frogs are an army which has ‘invaded’ and are ‘cocked’ like ‘mud grenades’. Even the little sounds the ‘slap and pop’ carry threats in this context – obscene and ‘farting’ through their ‘blunt heads’. He feels threatened and is apparently oblivious to the fact that it is he who is the invader in this context since he has come to remove the tadpoles into captivity. We note also the stress made to the masculinity of the opponent – a boy will need to challenge his male forebears as he grows up and here he is not ready. Much is made of the ‘bass chorus’ of the ‘coarse croaking’ which seems to have turned the air ‘thick’ and unnatural. The novelty of this is accentuated by the placing of ‘before’ as the first word of line 26. The young Heaney is presented with a new challenge.
In later years he will respond differently, as we learn in An Advancement of Learning, but at this time, the tricolon sentence ‘I sickened, turned and ran’ captures the stages of his panic and retreat. He has been defeated by the ‘slime kings’, a description which manages to capture a childish sense whilst establishing the true order of the day. He has been interfering with nature and fears punishment. The monosyllabic final line drives the message home – the sawn will ‘clutch his hand and eagerly drag him down. At the end of the penultimate line, before the enjambment, he says ‘I knew’ this. At this stage his knowledge is based on perception and imagination. As he grows he will begin to reason and look beyond the instincts which lie at the heart of the innocent and he will overcome his fears. At this age he is defeated. He is not ready.