The Subject of “Death” To the “Naturalist” According to Heaney
The premise of naturalism is the philosophical argument that all
phenomena and events, all experiences and impulses can be explained by the
dictate of natural law. This is to say that man’s experience especially
must be understood through this lens. Few poets would explore the
boundaries of this idea as would Irish born poet and Nobel Prize winner
Seam Heaney. (Forbes, 1) As he remains active even today, Heaney graces us
with a body of work that includes many of the barest and most compelling
poetic renderings of nature’s force to impinge upon the experience of man.
It is perhaps a point of irony, therefore, that one of his most prominent
pieces and the titular inspiration for a 1966 collection that helped to
cement his vaunted reputation would be called “Death of a Naturalist.
Indeed, it sets upon us the impression that the poet has undergone some
experience which has caused him to disavow this lens. Nothing, of course,
could be further from the truth, which leaves us impelled to explore this
work and others to better understand what is meant by the ‘death’ of this
We are aided in this task by understanding something of the boy who
was born on a County Derry farm in Northern Ireland but whose formative
experiences would be interrupted by the cultural shift in a move to the
Republic of Ireland. (Forbes, 1) This experience would provoke a
transition in his life that helps to shed some light on the subject at
hand. Indeed, “for a young poet like Heaney, born into a life-pattern he
knows he must leave, the first imperative psychological task is to define
his own selfhood.” (Vendler, 78) Perhaps the most important idea that we
would want to explore here is less this idea of selfhood, which is not as
prominent a theme in the naturalist discussion at hand, than this idea of
being forced to leave behind places of warmth and comfort. The implicit
theme of lost innocence will tie into the alternating warmth and foreboding
of nature in Heaney’s lifetime of work. As we explore here below, there
may be little rationality in conceding to the idea that the naturalist in
Heaney had ever died, but perhaps he did suffer a sickness of the soul.
In many ways, it may be more appropriate to suggest that this
impression was rather an evolution in the poet’s perception. The idea that
the naturalist in him had ceased to be is obviously rather inconsistent
with a lifetime of work that suggests an intense focus on this area of
life. Even until very late in an output which continues to expand, Heaney
has demonstrated a commitment to themes suggesting nature as the primary
lens through which to view the world and all its phenomena. So is this
underscored by the Ireland (2008) article which describes a Heaney poetry
reading at Harvard University just past year. In addition to the effusive
praise which it heaped upon his demeanor, work and reading, the article
drew liberally from various works committed by the poet in the last two
These do vocally denote a preoccupation which nature as the primary
effecter of man’s experience. This is denoted by a 1984 poem which the
article tells Heaney made as a gift to Harvard. Entitled “Alphabets,” the
poem describes the wondering child in his first encounters with the written
and spoken language, “as from his small window/The astronaut sees all he
has sprung from.” The simile provokes an impression of man as a product of
the natural world, an impression that seems inherent enough until one
contrasts it to the modern egocentricity of man, who may rather view
himself as a thing of great, self-made importance.
To this end, it seems certain that Heaney is at least relatively a
naturalist throughout the course of his professional life. From the deeply
spiritual to the decidedly pedestrian, the subjects which invoke his
attention are painted with the brushstrokes of a landscape artist, nearly
all the examples provided by the Ireland text suggest a career compelled by
the observations made in nature’s surrounding stimuli. A poem which he
reads during his 2008 visit to Harvard entitled “The Rain Stick” offers a
deeply evocative telling of the sounds of nature. Here, he tells, “… And
now here comes/A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves/Then subtle
little wets off grass and daisies/Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of
air . . . You are like a rich man entering heaven/Through the ear of a
raindrop.” (Ireland, 1) A man who professes to so clearly and deeply
experience the richness of all nature’s senses may be unlikely to insist
today to the death of the naturalist within him.
It is therefore that we are inclined to add the scrutiny applied to
the startling poem, “Death of a Naturalist” also to the life of Seamus
Heaney as a means to interpreting the motive for the eulogy of his internal
naturalist. Truthfully, there is little mystery as to the autobiographical
force which directed his pen at this point in his life, demonstrated more
explicitly by such works as “Mid-term Break,” where he tells in no
uncertain detail of the death of his four year old brother by automobile
accident. As perhaps a recurrent theme relating to the naturalist
proclivity toward description through the senses more than through the
psyche, he describes his auditory experience upon learning of his brother’s
death. He opens the poem speaking of the tense duration before he was to
be joined with his already grieving family, telling that “I sat all morning
in the college sick bay. Counting bells knelling classes to a close.”
(Heaney) This lonely imagery is offered in the stead of actually telling
us that this was the place where he learned of the tragedy.
And in a manner that follows the rationality of the naturalist, the
remainder of the poem is also starkly put, with any emotional demonstration
exhibited by the subjects; his mother, his father and the men of his town.
The poet would not offer here any greater indication of his own emotional
disposition beyond the toned description of the world surrounding him.
This is a distinctly naturalist disposition, to separate one’s self from
the egoistic experience of understanding something as personal as tragedy,
instead using this to key into something about the human experience,
inherently afflicted as it is by suffering and unspeakable sorrow. To
dispense with the trite elaboration on his own endurance of this condition,
Heaney instead explores this experience with an eye to the sensory
perception of grief.
This is important to our understanding of the ‘death’ which occurs in
the title poem of his 1966 collection. This more abstract one, it would
seem, is directly entangled with the very concrete encounter with mortality
represented in his brother’s untimely passing. The two stanzas that
constitute a poem which is extremely dense in descriptive detail and yet
surprising in the degree to which it strikes at the readers emotional core
are directly contrasted from one another in perspective. There is a sense
of the before and after in the experience of trolling the flax-dam for
In the first stanza, Heaney’s description is a beautiful yearning
extrapolation on a suspended moment in childhood, where the gritty and
unpredictable qualities of the natural world fill the narrator with wonder
and a sense of innocent joy. He tells of the dam pond that “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 few like clotted water.”
(Heaney) The thick description that is a trademark of Heaney’s comes out
here in a loving reflection of himself as a child, seeming to be relatively
carefree in the context of a rich ecosystem.
The youthful innocence is underscored by Heaney’s content and
linguistic approach alike. Describing the archetypal childhood expedition
through the thorny wilds of one’s extended backyard, he tells of filling
“jampotfuls of the jellied / specks to range on window-sills at home.”
(Heaney) Or in his reference to mammy and to Miss Walls, Heaney indulges
in the portrayal of his speaker as truly being a child on the cusp of some
revelation. It helps to provide the particular poem with the voice of very
young speaker portrayed.
This is important for the revelatory outcome of this poem, revealed in
the second stanza. Though the first stanza is sunny in explicit
description and in tone, the ecology which it describes comports itself on
terms such as ‘festered,’ ‘rotted,’ ‘slobber,’ and ‘gauze of sound.’ These
are terms meant not to denote an ugliness but to speak with frankness of an
ecology in which the production of new life such as is here described is
precipitated on death and decay. The naturalness, the inherency and the
sheer inexorable reality of death comes to roost in the tone of the far
more disturbing second stanza. A deep and horrifying malaise hangs over
the images described here. To be sure, it seems that there is something
more than just the changing of the seasons which affects the speaker and
which afflicts his perspective so dramatically. He tells that “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.” (Heaney, 1)
This is a moment of ominous dread. The optimistic cycle where death
had given way to life in the first stanza-a decidedly naturalist embrace of
the wonder that is life-is now described as a threatening and mysterious
force somewhat beyond the comprehension or experience of the young speaker.
The language becomes decidedly more aggressive and far bleaker, describing
‘gross-bellied frogs,’ with a ‘slap and plop’ like ‘obscene threats.’ He
describes them as ‘poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.’
In all of this, there is dually a visual description of nature as producing
something horrific and literally sickening to behold, as well as a
presentation of nature as something dangerous and weaponized against him.
It is here that, in attempting to deal with the primary question of
the research investigation, we must return to the issue of Heaney’s real
life brother. This is the catalyzing force driving the change in the
poet’s feelings toward nature, bringing him face to face with its awesome
power to give life and to take it away. The nature which could be so
gentle and generous in breathing experience into his little brother had
been dangerous and terrible in taking him away at only four years of age.
For Heaney, the dramatic experience described by “Death of a Naturalist” is
one that suggests the poet’s love for nature has been deprived by some
impossible to endure terror. The final sentence of the poem is both
compelling to this end and revealing of the poet’s psyche only in its
attention to the natural responses around him. Here, fear dominates him.
Before running in abject horror from the dam which, only in the days prior
as described in the first stanza, had been a playground to him, he provides
an appropriately childlike interpretation of the experience. He observes
that “the great slime kings / Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
/ That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.” (Heaney)
This last is a rather important sentiment to parse in trying to
determine if the naturalist in Heaney had ever truly died. The description
offers firstly a indication that the speaker sees himself as somehow guilty
and deserving of the dangerous and threats which seem to be prevented to
him. Certainly, this may be the poet’s depiction of a child’s mind in its
own inherent guilt and unwanted self-consciousness, or it may be an
indication that the speaker is truly aware of some wrong that he is
committed and for which he will suffer great anxiety. More importantly
though is the very clear idea that leaves us with a hollow and unique sort
of revulsion. The idea that to dip his hand in the dark murkiness of the
decaying swamp water would be to be ‘clutched’ by something horrible and
invisible is quite revealing of a new and unwanted interpretation of
nature. Through his eyes, we see this as a force with the capacity to be
vengeful, awful and fully without mercy.
The violent accident that took his brother’s life and the narrative
experience of enduring this tragedy, which Heaney offers us unflinchingly,
provides Heaney with an experience that alters his understanding of nature.
Certainly it doesn’t diminish his appreciation for it, or at least his
attention to detail there within. But it does manifest a greater sense of
foreboding of what it means to be a man at the mercy of nature’s
irresistible force. There is demonstrated a greater respect for that which
is fully implied by naturalism. The vulnerability and helpless that we see
in the boy sitting in his college’s infirmary is the very same as the dread
and uncertainty in the boy at the flax-dam, and most significantly, the
very same as the sense of smallness felt to the astronaut peering out of a
window at his planet. The invocation of nature as something both beautiful
and perilous is entitled “The Death of a Naturalist” but might more aptly
be referred to as his revelation, or perhaps the death of his innocence.
The title is not erroneous per se, but at least misleading in a retrospect
on Heaney’s career. If it is not fair even to suggest that the title is
erroneous, perhaps the sentiment is simply stated indirectly.
The death of Heaney’s brother is tantamount to the death of a
sensibility in him. Perhaps the sensibility that in the human experience,
suffering and tragedy bring individuals closer to an awareness of their
vulnerability and their ultimately mortality. With his brother’s passing,
Heaney came to a new understanding of nature which would set to revelation
the idea that the naturalist must in his deference to nature, accept his
own relative impotence. If anything, this appreciation only intensifies
the naturalist in Heaney, with the output to follow bespeaking an even
greater emphasis on the degree to which nature brings together all things
in this cycle of life and death. In fact, this does bring some epiphany to
our discussion. In the sentiment which refers to the ‘death of a
naturalist,’ we may more abstractly read this as exploration of ‘death’ to
a naturalist. Namely, much of Heaney’s preoccupation with nature becomes
manifested in his exploration of the inherently natural subject of death.
Perhaps this is most stunningly connoted in a work that both
explicitly deals with his brother’s passing and the ebb and flow of
nature’s cycle. In “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” Heaney offers a rather
Buddhist principle in an imagined return of his brother to the natural
phenomenological process. Describing a ‘cell’ which the reader might
presume as the same space as the 4 foot coffin, he tells of “St. Kevin”
whose “One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff / As a crossbeam, when a
blackbird lands / And lays in it and settles down to nest.” (Heaney) The
poem goes on to intersperse uncertainty as to how Kevin is or is not
experiencing the tactile sensations of the life blossoming in his dead
palm. The poem states rather explicitly the naturalist proposition that
“Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked / Neat head and
claws and, finding himself linked / Into the network of eternal life.”
This invocation of the network and the idea of eternal life recounts
the theme first described by “Death of a Naturalist” where the transition
between death and life leaves blurry the line between the two. The poet
who comes to understand that these two things are intertwined and
interdependent is the same who by the composition of “St. Kevin” no longer
speaks of the cycle with the guilt or dread driven by personal psyche in
the aforementioned poem. Instead, there is only the uncertainty and
inquisitiveness prompted by the abyssal nature of death with respect to the
experience of life. The contrast could not be made more clear than it in
St. Kevin, where the poet says of the subject, “now he must how his hand /
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks / Until the young are
hatched and fledged and flown.” (Heaney)
This is a remarkable bit of imagery in which we may find some
redemption. The moment of ‘death’ described in the two stanzas of marked
difference in “Death of a Naturalist” takes on a different emotional
proportion in this work. Instead here it promotes a greater appreciation
of the completeness and continuity between life and death, necessarily
coexistent as they are. As Heaney’s later career would advance, it would
do so under the auspices of what we learn were increasingly vocal political
dispositions. Reasserting his Irish identity and using this as a beacon
for objection to British political occupation and aggression, Heaney would
prove himself the ultimate naturalist. Channeling his commitment to the
principles of natural law into a political perspective which objected to
the violations of human rights that he felt were clear, Heaney would
undeniably be a naturalist of immensely dedicated proportions even to
present date. (Wikipedia, 1) Furthermore, it seems clear by his work that
at no point would he ever have wished to deny this identity or philosophy.
We are therefore reinforced in the argument that Heaney’s invocation
of the ‘death’ of a naturalist was an emotional response to the trauma of
his brother’s untimely demise and all which this experience revealed about
nature to him. Of all considerations touched upon in the exploration of
this idea, perhaps the most important to reassert in closing is that which
premises that the ‘death’ in the title of the poem and its containing
collection is not an incident but an idea. The idea of ‘death’ is
introduced to the poet, who in his commitment to exploring the themes of
nature and of natural law, is thus committed to exploring the boundaries of
what we know, understand and experience where death is concerned.
To resolve the point, it is appropriate to close with a striking point
made in the final stanza of “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” where Heaney
says of Kevin, “A prayer his body makes entirely / For he has forgotten
self, forgotten bird / And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.”
(Heaney) The concept here is that death returns to nature, and renders us
as part of the phenomenological ebb and flow which is never-ending. Man’s
memory is finite, and so is the sensation which is endowed to him to touch,
hear, smell and behold nature. And where this markedly contrasts the
infinitive quality of nature, Heaney would find a subject worthy of the
devotion of his entire career.
Forbes, C. (2005). Seamus Heaney. Poetry Archive. Online at
Heaney, S. (1991). Death of a Naturalist. Faber and Faber.
Ireland, C. (2008). Heaney ‘catches the heart off guard.’ Harvard
Vendler, H.H. (2000). Seamus Heaney. Harvard University Press.
Wikipedia. (2009). Seamus Heaney. Wikimedia, Ltd. Inc.
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