In addition to the rhythm of the lines established by blank verse (which we discuss at length in "Form and Meter") this poem has tons of impressive sound effects—even Timbaland would be impressed. Heaney is really trying to make the sounds of the poem reflect the sounds of the place. So think swampy suction sounds, and hopping frogs, and you've got what he's after. When the tone in the poem shifts from enthusiastic curiosity to horror and disgust, the sounds shift too. Let's take a look at some of the tools he uses most often.
Right from the get-go Heaney hits us with a healthy heaping of alliteration (yes, we did that on purpose). In line 1, you hear the repetition of the Fsound: "the flax-dam festered," and then quickly in lines 1 and 2 you hear the repetition of the H sound: "heart/ Of the townland; green and heavy-headed." It continues throughout the poem—"jampotfuls of the jellied"—and so forth and so on.
Similar to alliteration are consonance (close repetition of similar or the same consonant sounds), and assonance (close repetition of similar or the same vowel sounds). Heaney uses consonance most forcefully when the tone of the poem has shifted, and all of a sudden this natural world feels threatening to our speaker. The harsh consonants help hammer home a sense of violence and threat that coincide with what the speaker is experiencing. Take a look at the repetition of hard C sounds throughout the second stanza when things start to go sour: "rank / With cowdung [...] I ducked through hedges / To a coarse croaking" (22-25). And a bit further on: "bass chorus […] were cocked […] I sickened, turned, and ran [...] The great slime kings […] would clutch it" (26-33).
Assonance is a bit subtler and helps braid the sound of the poem together without us even noticing it. Heaney gets to it right away, with the long A sound in: "heart […] heavy headed […] weighted" and just a little later with the short U: "punishing sun" and "bubbles." Heaney uses assonance as back-up vocals to the more forceful alliteration and consonance. You don't really notice it when you're listening, but the song's way better because it's there.
One of the coolest thing Heaney does with sound is onomatopoeia, which is when a word sounds like what it's trying to represent. For example, the speaker encounters the frogs in the dam and they're being all nasty and threatening:
[…] 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. (27-30)
This really sounds like what it is. "Slap" and "plop" sure does sound like frogs jumping around. Heaney knows this and uses onomatopoeia to add texture to the scene and draw us in.
Anytime there's "Death" in the title, it's worth paying attention to. What does death make you think of? Dead people? Tombstones? Grief? Loss? Zombies? Here Heaney pulls a fast one on us. No one actually dies in this poem. While the word death pulls us in and puts us on the edge of our seats before we even begin the poem, the death in this one is figurative, not literal. No need to bust out your black funeral attire, but we are as readers prepared for the idea of loss from the get-go.
Well, not really, but in the case of this poem, "naturalist" has two definitions. The first, which applies directly to the meaning of the poem, is someone who is an expert in natural things, particularly zoology (think frogs) or botany. You know the type—all khaki safari wear and field guides bursting from a well-worn satchel. The speaker, who seems to be a budding naturalist, with a keen interest in the flax dam and frogs, "dies" (or his interest dies) at the end of the poem, when he sees the horrifying scene of the frogs slapping around in a threatening and disgusting way.
The second definition of "naturalist" is the adherence to naturalism in art. This definition applies more to the poet than to the poem. If you've ever read any of Heaney's other poetry, you'd know nature plays a big role, and by big we mean like the size of a thousand-year-old redwood. But maybe he's making a statement that although nature plays a big role in his poems, he doesn't consider himself a naturalist poet. There's nothing like "killing" the (naturalist) character off the show to shake things up. Amirite, Game of Thrones?
At the end of the day (or the froggy life cycle), the title alerts us to a profound change. However you want to interpret the titular "Death" of the title, we understand that this poem is about growing older, and what gets life behind in the process.
Heaney establishes a strong sense of place right away: "All year the flax dam festered in the heart / Of the townland" (1-2). The poem is set in a rural area, in close enough proximity to nature for the speaker to be completely immersed in it come springtime. The speaker is all about becoming one with the natural setting. He celebrates the strong sounds and smells that mean the arrival of his absolute favorite thing: frogspawn (sure, some of us might celebrate the arrival of warmer months when we hear the first ice cream truck, but this kid's a little different).
The speaker takes a quick jaunt to school (to learn about frogs' reproductive practices), but eventually returns to the flax-dams where he can follow the progress of frogspawn to adult frog. The scene is rich with all elements of springtime. The good (butterflies and sprouting greenery) and the bad and ugly (rotting flax, and steaming cow dung) that Heaney describes in vivid detail engage nearly every sense: "Then one hot day when the fields were rank / With cowdung" (22-23). He hits us with a one-two steamy and stinky punch there. Luckily he spares us the experience of taste. We don't want to imagine what a "jampotful of jellied" frogspawn would actually taste like going down. Yuck.
The setting really never changes for our young naturalist. It's the same flax-dam, same frogs, same muddy grossness it's always been. What's telling, then, is the change in how the speaker relates to this setting. He goes from an enthusiastic celebrant to a fearful observer. Yup, that's what growing up can do to you, alright.
The speaker is a young boy, probably anywhere from 8-12 years old, judging from his "mammy" and "daddy frog" vocabulary. He's learning the biology basics in school, and takes matters into his own hands, collecting frogspawn like it's going out of style. His excitement and enthusiasm for the muddy and stinky elements of spring give off an innocent and exhilarated vibe (slapping around in mud puddles isn't exactly common practice for adults). His wide-eyed innocence makes him extra curious and he devours all the information and frogspawn experience that he can take in.
But our speaker doesn't stay googly-eyed over frog goop forever. Just like the spring season in which the poem takes place, he goes through quite the transformation. As the title suggests, his attitude toward nature, and his froggy friends, ultimately changes: "The great slime kings /
Were gathered there for vengeance" (31-32). What was once a grand old time now becomes tinged with ickiness and, worse, danger. It's as if some of the blissful ignorance of youth has been replaced by a new wariness about the wider world. Our little tadpole of a speaker takes another step toward becoming a big ole bullfrog. Don't act like you don't know! Growing up is hard to do.
While it's not too difficult to follow the action in the poem, there is a lot lying beneath the surface. Much of the poem's meaning comes through between the lines. Bring your all-weather gear, follow the trail blazes, and you'll be sure to find your way.
In life things aren't always black and white. In fact, it's usually a great, big patch of gray area. Heaney is skilled at showing us the whole picture in a very small frame. Through realistic and detailed description, he shows us the complicated intricacies that surround us and help us frame our fluctuating opinions. In this particular poem, we see the beauty and ugliness intertwined in nature, and the impressions it makes on our young speaker.
If you're into what Heaney's throwing down here, you might like some of his other poems. Check out "Digging" and "Blackberry Picking", for example. They're from the same collection as "Death of a Naturalist." You'll recognize the trademark natural setting as a backdrop for Heaney to paint a picture of life and its complex relationships and shifting opinions.
Don't let the name fool you. Blank verse doesn't mean there's nothing going on. Blank verse is made up of unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter. Now, you can probably guess what "unrhymed" means, but the iambic pentameter part might be less obvious. Let's dig deeper, shall we?
Iambic pentameter is used to describe the rhythm at work in each line. Iambs are made up of one unstressed syllable and one stressed one, and sound like this: daDUM. Try saying "allow" out loud and you'll hear an iamb in action. The pentameter part just refers to how many feet (or beats) make up the line. In this case it's five ("penta-" = five)—five iambs to a line in iambic pentameter.
Blank verse is the glue that holds this poem together. The iambic pentameter ensures that the rhythm of the lines is steady as an old freight train. And while Heaney definitely gets a little funky with some poetic sound effects (we'll discuss this further in "Sound Check"), the regularity of blank verse keeps the train from running off the track.
But don't mistake regularity for being boring. Rules, Heaney knows, are made to be broken (or in this case, bent). One of the most common variations in blank verse, and one Heaney uses in this poem, is inversion. That means instead of the second syllable of the foot being stressed, the first gets the stress. Usually this happens at the beginning of the line, as in line 15:
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
Notice how the stress comes at the beginning of the line, then it goes back to normal with the second syllable of each foot stressed for the rest of the line. It's just enough variation so the regular rhythm doesn't take on a droning quality. Poetry is supposed to sound musical, after all, not like this guy.
Finally, we just couldn't let you go without mentioning line 21. Just look how small that guy is. This poem is organized as one, long stanza, but in this case this little two-word line signals a break between the young, exuberant, interested speaker and the older, more nervous and freaked-out speaker. So, even as the rhythm and the music of the poem are humming along, Heaney's form is giving us subtle clues as to how content is organized.
Some little kids can really get down with gross. Why do you think Gak and Slime were so money for Nickelodeon? There's just something appealing and intriguing about stinky and slimy stuff. Maybe it's because our parents spend so much time trying to keep us clean as kids that when life presents us with some high-quality gnarly nature we can't help but be psyched. That's precisely the state we find out speaker in as we enter this poem. The flax dam is rotting and gurgling and the slimy frogspawn is the prized bounty of this stinkpot, and Heaney uses his most strikingly vivid imagery to convey the gleefully gross stuff.
At some point in the poem, things turn sour (with all that rotting and festering, how could it not?). A little more insight and a little more experience, and all of a sudden all that was pleasantly putrid is now revolting and scary. Maybe too much of a good (gross) thing really isn't a good thing, after all. Or maybe understanding that harmless, slimy frogspawn blast into beastly bullfrogs that look like grenades is a little intimidating. Either way, this poem turns from celebrating the icky in nature, to exposing its frightening and ugly side. Heaney's weapons of choice to get this idea of across are imagery (an old stand-by), and some wild wordplay using consonance.
Our young speaker is alive with curiosity and amazement. He's super-stoked about what nature dishes out to him, particularly the gooey bits gurgling away in the flax dam. He listens with awe as his teacher explains what the deal is with frogspawn, and becomes a collector and connoisseur of the jellied globs. He's not only excited to witness the cool stuff that's happening in nature, but to partake in it, too. Who knows, maybe he'll be the next Jane Goodall or Steve Irwin.
Scratch that. It looks like the speaker will not be the next Jane Goodall or Steve Irwin. Our little speaker has lost some of that innocence and as a result, the naturalist in him has died. RIP. Sometimes growing up is like that. You start to find out more about life, and nature, and then the gross things aren't awesome anymore; they're just plain… gross.
This poem is a lot grosser than it is steamy, but when the speaker learns about the frogs' reproductive process, his awareness is broadened about sex in general. While he probably doesn't have it all figured out, this lesson seems like his introduction to the birds and the bees.