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Death of a Naturalist

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Introduction

Death of a Naturalist This poem is similar to Blackberry-Picking in its subject and structure - here, too, Heaney explains a change in his attitude to the natural world, in a poem that falls into two parts, a sort of before and after. But here the experience is almost like a nightmare, as Heaney witnesses a plague of frogs like something from the Old Testament. You do not need to know what a flax-dam is to appreciate the poem, as Heaney describes the features that are relevant to what happened there - but you will find a note below. Click here to see this explanation. The poem's title is amusingly ironic - by a naturalist, we would normally mean someone with expert scientific knowledge of living things and ecology (what we once called natural history), someone like David Attenborough, Diane Fossey (of Gorillas in the Mist fame) or Steve Irwin (who handles dangerous snakes). The young Seamus Heaney certainly was beginning to know nature from direct observation - but this incident cut short the possible scientific career before it had ever got started. We cannot imagine real naturalists being so disgusted by a horde of croaking frogs. The poem has a fairly simple structure. ...read more.

Middle

This part of the poem is ambiguous - we see the horror of the plague of frogs, "obscene" and "gathered...for vengeance", as it appeared to the young boy. But we can also see the scene more objectively - as it really was. If we strip away the effect of imagination, we are left with a swarm of croaking amphibians. This may bring out a difference between a child in the 1940s and a child in the west today. The 21st century child knows all about the frogs' habitat and behaviour from wildlife documentaries, but has never seen so many frogs at close range in real life. The young Heaney was used to seeing nature close up, but perhaps never got beyond the very simple account of "mammy" and "daddy" frogs. The teacher presents the amphibians as if they were people. The arrival of the frogs is like a military invasion - they are "angry" and invade the dam; the boy ducks "through hedges" to hide from the enemy. Like firearms, they are "cocked", or they are "poised like mud grenades" (a grenade is a hand-bomb - the frogs, in colour and shape, resemble the Mills Hand Bomb, used by British soldiers from the Great War to modern times). ...read more.

Conclusion

* How far does this poem tell the truth about frogs and how far does it tell the reader about the power of imagination? * Is this poem comic, serious or both? How far does the poet invite us to laugh at him? * Heaney describes the frogs' heads as "farting". As a boy he might have said this word to friends, but would not repeat it at home or write it in school work. How does it work in the poem? * Is it a good idea for teachers of the young to explain how animals live by describing them in human terms, like "mammy" (mum or mummy) and "daddy"? * How well does this poem fit in with your ideas of what poetry should normally be like? * How truthful is the title? Did Heaney really lose his interest in, and love of, nature. Or does the poem record only a dramatic change of attitude, or something else? (Note, for example, that the poem called Perch was published in 2001.) * Does this poem have anything in common with other poems by Heaney? How far does it fit into a pattern of poems that show him not to be a real country person (like his father and grandfather) - because he can't dig, he can't plough, he gets upset when the blackberries start rotting and he is frightened by a lot of frogs? ...read more.

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