The completely solitary self: that’s where poetry comes from, and it gets isolated by crisis, and those crises are often very intimate also.
~ Seamus Heaney
In “Death of a Naturalist” Seamus Heaney’s gifts as a poet are clearly on display: the clashing consonants, the onomatopoeia, the wonderful attention to detail, the evocative reminiscing. These are what make Heaney one of the greatest poets of our time.
I like reading Heaney in the cold of winter. Some of his best poems feature spring or summer memories. When you read a poem like “Death of a Naturalist” your own reminiscences of childhood mix and mingle with his. That is the nature of a great poem, it draw us in… and then draws out from us: emotion, memory, thoughts, wonder.
Death of a Naturalist
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 dragon-flies, 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.