Death of a Naturalist
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber 1999 (1966)
It’s fascinating to read this collection of nearly three dozen short poems, individually each a gem, collectively a story of childhood and young adulthood leading to marriage. It very much reminds me of an album of photographs, or even those selections of instrumental miniatures called Albumblätter or Feuilles d’Album.
What do we observe? Scenes of countryside activities from the author’s childhood in County Derry, glimpses of individual lives in Belfast, reminiscences of a honeymoon taken, a sojourn on the islands of Aran. Vignettes they may be but they’re vivid and intense, self-contained and demanding to be savoured.
I’ve met one or two of these before, for example Blackberry-picking, which inspired me to write ‘I Hunted Dragons Once’, but to encounter them in their entirety is a very different experience. Too many to comment here on each individually, it’s also hard to make a selection of favourites because each one has its own merits; but try I must.
I’ll start with the title poem, though it’s not the first in this collection. Like many of the other pieces it’s rich in metaphor and anthropomorphism: describing a putrid flax-dam sweltering in the sun he tells us how “Bubbles gurgled delicately, bluebottles | Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.” Here is the “warm thick slobber | Of frogspawn” that draws the schoolchild back to the dam; here now he finds the “great slime kings” whose pulsing and farting nip the nascent naturalist’s ambitions in the bud. On the other hand, An Advancement of Learning describes an encounter with a “hitherto snubbed rodent”
“Forgetting how I used to panic
When his grey brothers scraped and fed
Behind the hen-coop in our yard,
On ceiling boards above my bed.”
Dare one hope the young naturalist was revivified meeting this rat with” tale red tail” and “raindrop eye”?
Farm life looms large: memories of his father behind a horse-plough, a photograph of his father’s uncle evoking long-gone haggling at cattle prices, lines of potato pickers bring awaken ancestral thoughts:
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
But it’s not all back-breaking toil and family deaths. We see a docker after work sitting at home “strong and blunt as a Celtic cross” while his family maintain a respectful silence; “old dough-faced women with black shawls” are descried praying in church; Heaney as a schoolteacher reflects on Beethoven “working its private spell”; and folk singers turn over “time-turned words”:
Their pre-packed tale will sell
Ten thousand times: pale love
Rouged for the streets. Humming
Solders all broken hearts. Death’s edge
Blunts on the narcotic strumming.
A good half dozen poems reflect on his wife Marie, to whom the whole collection is dedicated. The tone of these is personal, obviously, but also revealing of deep love and reliance (Valediction), recognition that the course of love didn’t always run smooth (Scaffolding), and quiet meditation on togetherness (Lovers on Aran).
All this varied material is itself scaffolded by masterly technique. Alliteration and onomatopoeia weave their spoken charm; near rhymes alternate with true rhymes; end-stopped lines are balanced with phrases flowing into those that follow; stanzaic structures in their brilliance don’t disguise the nature of these pieces as true prose poems.
I shall end with the last stanza of the first poem, Digging. Heaney is reminded of his familial roots listening as his father’s spade “sinks into gravelly ground”, conscious that his skills lie elsewhere:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Lucky we are that we may enjoy the fruits of his labour.
A title read for Begorrathon 2021