Study Guide

Death of a Naturalist Quotes

  • Man and the Natural World

    All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
    Of the townland; green and heavy headed (1–2)

    In the center of the town is a flax dam, where nature flourishes come springtime. "Heart" is a deliberate word choice here, and it's got nothing to do with Cupid. Heaney wants to get across that this place in nature is important in this poem, and it's particularly important to our speaker.

    There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies, (6)

    The flax-dam is buzzing with flies and butterflies. Wildlife abounds in this tiny ecosystem and our speaker is like a kid in a candy store—totally in awe, and totally stoked.

    But best of all was the warm thick slobber
    Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water (7–8)

    The dam water is home to more than flax. Along with the flies and butterflies, frogs are sprouting up all over the place too, and our speaker couldn't be more psyched about this natural bounty. What's better than, uh… "warm thick slobber"? (Never mind, don't answer that.)

    The fattening dots burst into nimble-
    Swimming tadpoles. (14–15)

    Heaney gives us a mid-poem biology 101 lesson on frog reproduction just to show how invested our speaker is in this aspect of the natural world.

    […] You could tell the weather by frogs too
    For they were yellow in the sun and brown
    In rain. (19–21)

    This is an instance where you can really see that the speaker pays attention to, and is excited by, what's going on in the natural world. You can almost picture him housing Lunchables and spouting these fun facts to his friends in the school cafeteria.

    Then one hot day when fields were rank
    With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs (22¬–23)

    Our speaker continues to explore his natural surroundings. Down in the hot, stinky fields, the speaker spies the frogs croaking away. This is the point in the poem where the speaker's relationship to nature starts to shift. We smell trouble in paradise.

    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. (27–30)

    The speaker observes how the bullfrogs are naturally, and his opinion about frogs starts to change—he's overwhelmed by their hopping and grunting, and begins to feel disgusted by them, and afraid. Head farting, in this case, is no laughing matter (we know, it kind of is).

    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. (31–33)

    The speaker pretty much experiences a one-eighty in terms of how he feels about the frogs in the flax dam. In the beginning he's bursting with enthusiasm, but by the end he's completely grossed out. He's even afraid that his interference (collecting the frogspawn) would be offensive enough to these mean looking frogs that they'd try to pay him back. Who knows what Revenge of the Frogs would look like, but he's not sticking around to find out.

  • Sex

    But best of all was the warm thick slobber
    Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water (8–9)

    The only way to get frogspawn is if two frogs mate. Our speaker might not be thinking about this yet, but those are the (slimy) facts.

    The daddy frog was called the bullfrog
    And how he croaked and how the mammy frog (16–17)

    The male frog courts the female frog by croaking. Love is in the air! It's part of their mating ritual. Again, it doesn't seem like the speaker has made this connection yet, but it shows he is learning about the sexual reproduction of frogs.

    Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
    Frogspawn. (18–19)

    Again, there's only one way to make frog babies: two frogs have to mate.

    To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
    before. The air was thick with a bass chorus. (25–26)

    The frogs' croaking is part of showing off for female companions. Is there anything hotter than a baritone croak? Not for lady frogs, there isn't. The fact that the speaker hadn't heard it before might be Heaney's sly way of saying that he's naïve when it comes to sex (both about the frogs, and potentially about humans, too).

    Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
    On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped (27–28)

    Again, this is the bullfrogs' display. To get in good with the ladies, they slap around and make a lot of noise. The boy, however, is disgusted by the show and makes a break for it. Is this when he makes the connection between the gross display and sex? Who knows. Regardless, this show makes a profound impact on him.

  • Innocence

    Best of all was the warm thick slobber
    Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water (8–9)

    The speaker's excitement comes through in "best of all." It seems like only a child could get that excited about "thick slobber."

    […] Here, every spring
    I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
    Specks to range on window-sills at home, (10–12)

    Again, the speaker's enthusiasm for watching the frogspawn hatch into frogs is childlike. You can almost feel his anticipation—like a kid waiting to open his birthday presents—as he waits for it to happen.

    The fattening dots burst into nimble-
    Swimming tadpoles. (14–15)

    The big event! They "burst" open. It's a party!

    […] 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 (15–18)

    You can tell the speaker's innocence by how he refers to the male frog as "daddy" and the female as "mammy." He's probably pretty young, and may even still refer to his parents as "daddy" and "mammy."

    To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
    Before (25–26)

    You get the idea that maybe our speaker hasn't heard a lot of things before. He's young, he's innocent, and chances are he has many new experiences ahead of him.

    I sickened, turned, and ran. (31)

    Whatever he sees—frogs mating, or just so many frogs croaking and hopping around all at once—he's not sticking around for the second act. It's too much for our speaker's innocent eyes, and it upsets him to the point of having to flee the scene.

    […] The great slime kings
    Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
    That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it. (31–33)

    By the end of the poem, the speaker seems to have lost some of his innocence regarding the world, at least this little slice of the natural world. He's become wary of the frogs—now they're menacing slime kings—that he was once so unwaveringly excited about.

  • Transformation

    All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
    Of the townland, green and heavy headed (1–2)

    The flax-dam seems to change from season to season. Its festering and rotting, though high on the ick factor, is a form of change just as much as growth is.

    Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
    In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring (9–10)

    Here, Heaney points out how spring brings about change. In this case, it's a time for frogs to produce frogspawn. Sure, it might not be the most exciting change in the natural world (not every natural transformation can be as earth-shattering as a volcanic eruption), but it's cool enough to keep our speaker's attention.

    The fattening dots burst into nimble-
    Swimming tadpoles. (14-15)

    The frogspawn, over time, transforms into tadpoles, which will eventually turn into frogs. The transformative miracle of life, people!

    Then one hot day when fields were rank (22)

    The introduction of this line, "Then one hot day," lets us know, as readers, that something is about to change. And in this case, change is about to go down with the speaker.

    To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
    Before (25-26)

    The speaker has never heard the croaking before, and after reading the poem and seeing what the experience did to him, we can tell that this new experience changed him in a big way. Can someone say traumatizing ?

    I sickened, turned, and ran. (31)

    No longer does the speaker think about the frogs excitedly. Now he's sickened by them. How quickly the opinions (and fashion) of young people can change!