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This poem is a fertile mixture of imagery, sounds and an impression created by nature on a person’s mind. Heaney sensualises an outstanding feel of the physical wonders of nature. As he wanders along the pathways of salient discovery, Heaney’s imagination bursts into life. This poem is actually very ironic, in its whole, as Heaney effectively carves a mountain out of a molehill of the episode about the frogs, a product of his enticing figments. In the first section of ‘Death of a Naturalist’, the child is entuned with the nature around him and vivid images of him revelling in the sensual pleasures of life are abundant.
Bubbles ‘gargling’ on stagnant water and the ‘warm thick slobber’ of frogspawn fascinated him. The imagery here indicates that Heaney feels pride in being able to be so close-up to nature and his immersion with nature, without, in anyway, being fastidious about it. Heaney is at this stage of life, innocent and gullible.
He imagines the opposing impulses of the bluebottles, which weave a ‘strong gauze of sound around the smell’ (in connection with the delicacy of the bubbles). The omnipresence of the sounds, smell and thoughts (??? typifies a powerful imagination and this confirms to us, the readers, the positive, free roaming and un-questioning attitude to nature and life possessed by a young child. There is, to a degree, some symbolism in this poem. Heaney, with the frogspawn which is both mystifying and phenomenal: ‘and this was frogspawn’ mystifying sinks a shaft in the child’s subconscious, and this causes him to become wary regarding nature and enquire about it.
It is a window, through which the child gains perspective and peeks through on the way towards his adulthood.
In addition, the personification of frogs as ‘mammy’ and ‘daddy’ by the child’s teacher reveals to the young and un-nurtured mind the pure existence of nature and its relations with our intimate concerns. Ironically, this same personification misleads the child and causes him to get lost and entwined in nature’s mysteries. This personification and the simplistic attitude towards nature embedded on the child’s mind throws him into confusion and causes him to suffer a frightening experience, but if not for this, he would not have discovered the true ‘nature’ of the nature surrounding him.
The child has ‘mistakenly’ unearthed the true nature and Heaney reflects this through his irony and personification. Irony weaves a circle into ‘Death of a Naturalist’. Is it a death? If so, what type of death is it? In the end, Heaney’s love of nature had died or rather subsides, but Heaney was not actually a naturalist, devoted to nature. It was instead, the element of directness in his approach to nature, involving his imagination that he had so nai??vely woven around ‘his’ natural life. The death was intrinsically an accident and a rock in Heaney’s path to discovery of nature.
Nature had, by then turned out to be and creates a window, unwelcoming. In a way, Heaney’s initial love of nature actually misguided him and conversely led him to rapidly retreat from natural pleasures. For, he was never the naturalist he thought himself to be. The sheer amount of sound or onomatopoeia employed by Heaney in ‘Death of a Naturalist’, eg ‘slap’, ‘plop’ and ‘croaking’ really resonate the alleyways of nature and later amalgamate into an extraordinary effect of the ‘bass chorus’. Put simply, the effect is rapid and reflects the boy’s rapid transformation of attitude.
The frogs make all the noise because the boy is experiencing terror: questions arise about the sudden appearance of frogs. He has no unfettering confidence and doesn’t find for himself any immunity from the threats posed by the frogs; whether his own simplistic thoughts which was the case before, or Ms Wall’s reassurances. Sounds in the poem actually blow out of thin air, eg ‘the air was thick with a bass chorus’; this gives the poem a true, contrasting texture of the frog’s harmless intentions, while Heaney perceives their existence as harmful to himself and harmful disastrous for nature.
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This feeling is further elucidated when the frog’s emergence is metaphorically compared to a plague-like attack: ‘poised like mud-grenades’. The amount of motion and movement and the stuttering-about of the frogs is really felt when Heaney metaphorically says ‘pulsed like sails’. This is when the readers feel that the threat to the young but wary, terrified Heaney was really terrifying. There is readily a feel of vengeance and retribution in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and alliteration affirms it, eg ‘Coarse croaking’ signifies the frogs’ continuous threat to Heaney, who had through his arrogance wronged them and selfishly grabbed the frogspawn.
This threat would emanate from the ‘slap’ and ‘plop’ which were ‘obscene threats’. These are sounds of menace, which overwhelmed the young adult, and created an impression of the bellicose nature of the enemy which was part of the nature he used to love so readily before. The use of enjambment to allow the lines to flow through has ensured that Heaney’s images and ideas are recreated in the readers’ minds, crystal clearly. Blank verse is also employed; therefore, Heaney is not bound by rhyme or any rule of expression.
This is compatible with the young adult’s transforming attitude towards nature. In addition, the poem is divided into two separate sections and this really gets through to the reader Heaney’s experience in distinct periods of time, and how they contrast together. We, the readers, sense that Heaney can no longer take things at face value but senses a threat behind the unknown. The complications with the frogs when they “invade the flax dam” symbolise the death of sensual pleasures and introduce a mystifying, confusing world, which leads to the dead end of the poem.
Heaney stereotypes the disgusting nature of frogs with their ‘gross-bellied’ appearance, which used in conjunction with other putrid imagery, makes the frogs seem repulsive and present nature as opposing to beautiful. In addition, the comparison of the arrival of the frogs with a military invasion really exposes Heaney’s vulnerability at that time, contrasted by ‘slime kings’ which embodies the enemy a great power and ability. Nature was vast and Heaney had just got acquainted with it.
Heaney has contrasted a simple natural process with his own imagination and actually indicated to us our own constant fears and interdependence on nature, on a large scale. We might ask ourselves: ‘Are we arrogant? ‘ Innumerable questions have pervaded Heaney’s mind and he has just only transpired a small bit of this uncertainty. Nature is unfalteringly cruel and this feeling is cemented by the last phrase ‘clutch it’: something is always there generating a threat; it could be invisible but still behind.
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