“The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour,” writes Heaney in his coming-of-age poem Blackberry-Picking (Death of a Naturalist, 1999). It is this process of growth, life and death found in every corner of Seamus Heaney’s beloved natural world that plagues his poetry collection ‘Death of a Naturalist’. Heaney was raised in County Derry, Northern Ireland, hidden in the rural landscape of his father’s farmland. His agricultural upbringing and unity with his country gave him a deep appreciation for both Gaelic culture and the workings of the natural world (Padilla, 2009). Heaney was a keen observer, and through his writing he saw the parallels between the cyclical nature of rural life and his own human development and maturity. In ecocritical analysis, writers are seen to focus “on the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (AQA, 2015) and Heaney forms this relationship around nature’s ability to trace the passage of time. The poems within ‘Death of a Naturalist’ are personal to Heaney as they explore his individual experiences of progressing from childhood to manhood. However, they also relate to a wider theme of loss of innocence and a reckoning with reality that one acquires through growing older. This reckoning frequently occurs after an experience with the harsher side of nature, destroying old perceptions of the world and leading the narrator towards a new ideology.
Death of a Naturalist, the title poem of the collection, richly depicts the countryside through the eyes of a naïve child, often interpreted as Heaney himself. Ironically placed as the second poem in the collection, the title itself suggests finality. The contrast between “death” and the youthful narrator, predetermines the poem as sombre, following the change in the child’s relationship with nature to one more inline with adult ideas. The first stanza of the poem introduces an optimistic and fond portrayal of nature, scattered with an inquisitive child’s interest in “the warm thick slobber of frogspawn”. The child’s curiosity and fascination contrasts with the repulsion that can develop in adulthood in response to certain aspects of the natural world. A semantic field of childhood is created in the first stanza with use of vernacular such as “daddy frog” and “mammy frog”. The latter also refers to the poem’s Irish context with colloquial language used to reinforce the subject matter’s intrinsic link with Irish culture (McClements). Despite the child’s clear enthusiasm and excitement in the first stanza, the language used often indicates an underlying sinister element to the poem. This ominous tone is created through use of the words “festered”, “rotted”, “clotted”, “sweltered” and “punishing”, portraying nature as a harsh and unforgiving force, much like the inescapable force of time. Heaney also uses sensory language to convey meaning within this poem. The alliteration and assonance of “Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles / Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell,” makes the language heavy and sticky, much like the frogspawn on the pond the boy is exploring.
The second stanza introduces a tonal shift within the poem, beginning with “then” and bringing a change in the child’s relationship with nature. After the languorous language used in the first stanza, this verse begins with a harsh monosyllabic line: “Then one hot day when fields were rank with cowdung”. Instantly, the landscape has metamorphosised into a hostile and dangerous environment with the use of hard consonants that grate and irritate. Nature no longer provides safety and comfort but beckons the reluctant child into a new harsh reality. This approach demonstrates Heaney’s reluctance to portray a pastoral and idealised version of natural life and the countryside, identified by Gifford as “simplified” and “dismissive” (Gifford, 1999). As the poem’s narrator is exposed to a darker side of the natural world, his childlike wonder is replaced with fear and anxiety. The childish onomatopoeic “slap and plop” is juxtaposed beside the words “obscene threats” showing the child’s growing mature understanding. Violent and warlike language is used to describe the frogs that once captured the narrator’s interest and imagination, as they stand “cocked” like “mud grenades”. In the child’s mind, the frogs have formed an army angered by the boy’s intrusion and are ready to seize back what rightfully belongs to them. “The great slime kings” that face the disillusioned child, with their pulsating, sagged necks and sickening farting, force the boy to retreat, perhaps back into childlike innocence. The affronting image Heaney portrays acts as a metaphor for the transformative journey of growing up and facing the irretrievable loss of innocence. The poem ends with the boy running away defeated, as his days as a naturalist draw to an end.
Heaney’s poem An Advancement of Learning is often interpreted as a follow-on piece from Death of a Naturalist. In this poem the narrator is once again confronted by nature in his journey to adulthood and rejection of childhood fears. In this particular case, Heaney’s fear inhabits a bridge which the narrator habitually avoids on his path home, “As always, deferring the bridge.” The river running beneath it is personified, “wearing a transfer of gables and sky”, adding to its potential danger. However, the river’s beauty holds the narrator’s interest as he watches it “hunched over the railing”. Unrelenting sibilance is introduced in the third stanza along with the antagonistic rat; nature’s less attractive face that distracts Heaney from the beauty of the river. The rat “slobber(s) curtly, close, smudging the silence.” The repeated ‘s’ and ‘c’ sounds imply the narrator’s repulsion and nausea at the sight of the rat, perhaps reflecting our own disgust at the unsavoury aspects of life that are exposed to us as we mature and grow older. This disgust is quickly followed by fear and anxiety as the narrator turns away in a “cold sweat” and another rat approaches up the bank. Faced with multiple difficulties, the narrator is forced to confront them with a “deliberate” stare. His increased self-assurance allows him to cross the psychological and emotional ‘bridge’ which he has avoided during childhood. Here, Heaney demonstrates how, although uncomfortable, the passage of time forces us into situations that ultimately allow us to grow and develop. The figure of the rat stands to represent the obstacles in life that require us to be courageous, although in doing so, we kill a part of our innocent selves.
Blackberry-Picking is a retrospective retelling of a memory in which Heaney and a childhood friend, presumably Phillip Hobsbaum to whom the poem is dedicated, picked blackberries in the summertime. The poem is deceptively simple and hidden beneath the blank verse lies an acute message of warning: it is inevitable that all we hold dear will eventually be lost in the natural passage of time. Much like Death of a Naturalist, the poem’s first verse is brimming with the hope, idealism and the potential of new life. The stanza’s layers of textured syntax overwhelms the reader with the sheer vitality of both nature and childhood energy, “its flesh was sweet like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it.” The poem is set in late August, “a time of year marked by transformation”, and much like the blackberries, the children are maturing and ripening with age (Kilian, 2019). Heaney’s choice to describe wine as “summer’s blood” is also suggestive of the death of summer, implying the end of childhood as autumn approaches. The blackberries are said to have grown in both “heavy rain and sun”, symbolic of the realities of life, we survive and develop through times of bad and good. This is the process of growing up.
Once again, Heaney introduces a more nostalgic and pessimistic outlook in the second stanza, as the blackberries the boys have laboured over begin to rot. As the narrator is describing a past memory, the poem is painted with the knowledge of life’s impermanence and disappointment. Therefore, the lens through which Heaney is interpreting the blackberries’ decay is one of reflection and experience. The berries are described as being covered with “a rat-grey fungus”, imagery reminiscent of An Advancement of Learning, as the rat is solidified as a hallmark of passing time. The decay of the fruit is described as a traumatic event for the narrator as the realisation occurs that their joy and innocence will never last in an ever-changing world. It is implied by the narrator that the blackberry-picking is an annual event although each year the outcome is always the same, the blackberries rot and he “always feels like crying”. The child’s disillusionment with the process lasts many years, however after witnessing the distressing cycle of harvesting and rotting repeatedly, the final note of the poem is one of futility as the boy resigns to the knowledge that “every year (he) hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”
Throughout his poetry, Heaney seems to find the connection between nature and the passage of time irresistible. His own personal relationship with age and maturity is further explored throughout his ‘Death of a Naturalist’ collection in poems such as Digging, Follower and Personal Helicon. Within these pieces Heaney draws on his family’s roots to the land and agriculture, and how they influence and shape our journeys through life. For Heaney, the qualities possessed by natural lifecycles and our own individual development are intrinsically tied together. Heaney himself retells an anecdote of bathing is a moss-hole as a boy and walking home “initiated” and “smelling of the ground” (Heaney, 1980). The earth provided Heaney with a rite of passage that allowed him to mature into a young man. Heaney uses this innate bond between mankind and the natural world to reveal truths about our longing to retain innocence, memories and youth – an effort which will ultimately be in vain.
AQA. (2015). Ecocritical ways of reading. In AQA, A Level English Literature B Critical Anthology (pp. 47-57). Cambridge University Press .
Gifford, T. (1999). Pastoral. Oxford: Routledge.
Heaney, S. (1980). Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. London: Faber and Faber.
Heaney, S. (1999). Death of a Naturalist. London: Faber & Faber.
Kilian, A. (2019, October 28). Blackberry-Picking. Retrieved from LitCharts: https://www.litcharts.com/poetry/seamus-heaney/blackberry-picking
McClements, H. (n.d.). Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney. Retrieved from Poem Analysis: https://poemanalysis.com/seamus-heaney/death-of-a-naturalist
Padilla, J. R. (2009). Seamus Heaney’s Elemental Ecopoetics: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Journal of Ecocriticicm, 21-29.