Death of a Naturalist Summary
The poem opens with some rich description of a swampy area where flax (a kind of plant) grows. Heaney describes the flies buzzing, and how the sun beats down on the mucky soil. He pays particular attention to the slimy frogspawn (what eventually becomes tadpoles, then frogs). This sparks a memory for the speaker, and he begins to talk about how in school, his teacher had students collect the gooey frogspawn in jars to watch it turn to tadpoles as part of a science lesson about frogs.
Then we're snapped into the present. One hot, steamy and stinky day, the speaker follows the sound of croaking frogs to its source. He sees more frogs than he's ever seen amongst the frogspawn (no, this is not a scene from a horror movie). They're croaking and slapping in the flax dam. Not surprisingly, he gets grossed out—so much so that he freaks out and runs away.
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
- First of all, let's get some vocab out of the way. Flax is a type of plant that grows annually (once a year). It grows from a seed, it's edible (get your Omega-3 on), and has blue flowers. In addition to being edible, flax is often grown for its fiber, which can be used to make fabric.
- A flax dam isn't actually a dam, but a muddy patch of earth that's soaked to soften the flax. During this process, things get pretty stinky. The plant basically rots as it softens, letting off an unpleasant smell. Blech.
- Also, "fester" means to decay or rot. When it's used to describe a wound, fester means to get infected with pus, or turn septic. Heaney is making use of both definitions in this first line. He literally means that all year the flax dam rots, but because the line ends with "heart" he can play around with the second definition, too (as in: the flax dam is like a rotting wound). Either way you look at it, it's a gnarly way to open a poem.
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
- That clears the festering heart image up. If you piece together the first line with the second, you'll see that Heaney means that the flax dam is rotting in the middle (the heart) of the town.
- Our speaker begins to describe the rotting flax: green and heavy on top, weighed down by large sods ("sods" are pieces of cut turf, and in this case, they help cultivate the flax).
- When the speaker chooses to describe the flax as "heavy headed" rather than, say, top heavy, he's giving the flax a human quality. This, along with the festering wound, makes the flax dam come alive a little bit—in a gross and smelly way. It's not a stagnant plant; it's a living and changing thing that fascinates the speaker.
- So there is a flax dam in the middle of the town, and during a certain time of year, it really stinks up the place. Good times.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
- The dam's rotting is helped along by the hot sun. Think of garbage piled up in a city street—it's much smellier in the hot months than in the winter.
- It's very likely spring or summer. It's hot and steamy, and the sun is burning down on the flax.
- The bubbles in the wet earth are letting off a gargling sound. It's interesting that Heaney describes it as "delicate," considering that the rest of the scene so far seems pretty gross. It's a little bit of contrast added to the description to make the scene more vivid.
- Bluebottles are a type of fly. They are presumably buzzing around the flax-dam like flies might buzz around garbage.
- After reading a few lines you might have noticed a recognizable rhythm in them (don't worry if you didn't—that's what we're here for!). Heaney writes this poem in blank verse. We discuss what that means in detail in the "Form and Meter" section, but for now you just need to know that blank verse makes for smooth and consistent beat in each line. It's the musical glue that holds it all together.
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
- The speaker describes the buzzing of the bluebottle flies as a "strong gauze of sound." Gauze is a thin, loosely woven fabric, something that we usually associate with giving a feeling or appearance, like any physical thing, and not really having any sound. But, clever guy that Heaney is, he takes the properties of gauze—its thinness, its ability to wrap (as a fabric or bandage)—and attributes it to the way the flies' buzzing sound is wrapping around the flax-dam. This is called synesthesia, or using one sense to describe another. So, perhaps he's saying the sound, though thin, is so concentrated in one area that you can almost see it. Or, maybe more realistically, he's describing what he sees—the hordes of flies buzzing around that look gauzy—and rightfully associating that image with the sound. It's an effective mash-up of the senses and helps illustrate just what the speaker is witnessing.
- Gauze is also something that we typically use to wrap around wounds. Don't think Heaney could slip this one past us unnoticed! After all of that talk of festering in the first line, we've got wounds on the mind—well, not literally (ew). Describing the flies' buzzing as gauze reinforces the wound image. We can see it even clearer now.
- The description of the scene continues in a straightforward way, too: there were dragonflies in addition to the bluebottles, and there were spotted butterflies as well.
- The speaker's descriptions so far weave both the pretty (the delicate gargling sounds, and the spotted butterflies) with the ugly (the festering dam, the rot, and "smell"). As readers, this can make the picture realistic for us—not every scene is picture perfect, or completely ugly—and it also gives us a sense that the speaker in the poem might have conflicting feelings about the scene, too. Let's read on to see if we're on to something…
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
- Science lesson: frogspawn is how frogs reproduce. It's jelly-like and fed by the sun, and turns into tadpoles (then eventually frogs). Gross and fascinating, right?
- It's funny that the speaker says "best of all" when he's describing something so yucky. (Now, we're just assuming the speaker is male since we have no evidence to the contrary.) He says it's like "warm thick slobber," which is reminiscent of dog slobber.
- But some people, particularly young people like the speaker at this point in the poem, can be kind of into gross stuff. It's just as fascinating as it is nasty to a young, curious mind.
- "Clotted" means lumpy and coagulated (stuck together). So it's this clumpy, jelly-like mass that's baking in the sun in the flax.
- Mmmm, appetizing!
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
- The speaker collects the frogspawn in jam jars—don't worry, not to eat.
- The season has been cleared up for us. It's every spring that this happens. Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal, and that works in this poem where frogspawn is all over the place. Little slime balls are busy growing into frogs.
- It seems that the speaker is having a little fun in line 11 with jam and jelly. We wouldn't want this jelly anywhere near our toast!
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
- "Specks" is still referring to the clumpy jelly in the jars. The little specks are the tiny beginnings of frogs held together in the goo of the frogspawn.
- The speaker collects the frogspawn and lets all the jars hang out ("range") on his windowsills in his house. Left in the sun, they'll eventually turn to tadpoles.
- He also collects them for school. The end of line 13 finally introduces one of the reasons that our speaker is such an avid collector of the stuff. He brings them to school to study, too.
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
- "The fattening dots" are the clumps in the frogspawn (like the "specks," these are the start of the tadpoles).
- Exposed to the sunlight (on the windowsills), the frogspawn turns into tiny tadpoles.
- Miss Walls is probably the speaker's teacher, and she is using the frogspawn and tadpoles to teach a science lesson. It's probably titled "How a glob of gross muck turns into frogs," or something like that.
- Notice here how line 15 ends in mid-sentence? That, Shmoopers, is what's known in the biz as enjambment. It's the poetic art of stopping mid-line for a reader to consider that thought, then carrying over into the next line to complete it. In this case, we are told that "Miss Walls would tell us how," which just reinforces her role as explainer-in-chief for her students. We wonder what she tells them in this specific instance (we're guessing it's a frog-related fact). Let's read on through the enjambment.
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
- Looks like Miss Walls is definitely their teacher, and she's giving them a science lesson in frog reproduction.
- The male frog is indeed a bullfrog, and bullfrogs have a super-low and loud croak.
- The female frog lays hundreds of eggs in the slimy frogspawn, and that's how tadpoles eventually come to be.
- So far this lesson seems straightforward, and the speaker, who is probably pretty young in this memory, is fairly interested, if not enthusiastic, about this whole frogspawn thing. He probably finds it en-gross-ing. Get it? Huh? Okay, nevermind…
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
- This is a little aside about the frogs, presumably learned in the science lesson from school, that they change color based on the weather.
- It seems like the speaker was totally interested in this lesson, and was kind of a frog nerd.
- So this was an exciting part of the year for him. From gathering the frogspawn from the flax dam, to watching the tadpoles hatch in the jam jars.
- Check out line 21. It really stands out, doesn't it? It's by far the shortest line of the poem, which seems to indicate that it's catching our attention for a reason. What could it be? Head to "Form and Meter" for more on how this poem is put together.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
- Heaney has shifted from the collective memory of "every spring," when the speaker would collect frogspawn and their teacher would give them a lesson on the reproductive nature of frogs, to a different, unique and "hot" day. Is something big about to happen?
- It's another stinker of a day by the flax dam. Cowdung (cow poop) is steaming in the grass—lovely.
- And now the frogs are angry. It's like Angry Birds, only with less feathers and more goop and cow poop. Never before in the poem have the frogs had any emotion. This is a first, and the fact that it's coming at the beginning of the second (and final) stanza might be signifying a shift in action or tone (or both).
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.
- So the angry frogs are on the move. There's a whole army ("invaded" makes us think of armies) of them, and they're taking over the flax dam with their croaking.
- The bass (low, loud sound) is something the speaker hasn't heard before, which is strange because he recalls that just about every year he collects the frogspawn. Perhaps this is later in the summer, after the tadpoles have grown into bullfrogs? That might be intimidating. Imagine hearing and seeing a whole mass of these guys.
- Again, Heaney describes the air (something you cannot touch) as thick (a textural description). Remember the gauzy sound?
- This description has the same effect. It's wrapping around the speaker, maybe even choking him a bit.
Lines 27– 28
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
- It seems like the speaker is getting a little skeeved-out by the frogs. Heaney describes them as "gross-bellied" and talks about their "loose necks."
- The "loose necks" that "pulsed like sails" is a simile that describes how the frogs make their croaking sound, by puffing out their throats.
- The frogs are cocked, as in pulled back ready for firing (like a gun). This is a somewhat violent way to describe the way the frogs are leaping from place to place. The speaker isn't exactly giddy with excitement like he was when he would scoop up the frogspawn. He's more appalled watching the bullfrogs.
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
- Again, he's totally grossed out, even offended. The speaker perceives the sounds of their hopping around as "obscene threats."
- They're readied like "mud grenades" and the sound of their croaking and slapping around sounds like farting. Bad times.
- The speaker has gone from mildly grossed out, to offended, and now it seems like he's even a little afraid. The "grenades" are the third example of violent, threatening language used to describe these frogs, along with "invaded" and "cocked."
I sickened, turned and ran. The great slime kings
- The speaker is so grossed out and afraid of the scene that he has to flee from it.
- The "great slime kings" refer to the frogs. They're slimy because they live among the grime of the flax dam, and they're born from slippery frogspawn. The speaker thinks of them as metaphorical kings because they seem to dominate the landscape of the flax dam with their load croaks and slaps, and also because there are so many of them.
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
- The frogs are not, of course, gathered at the dam for vengeance (violent revenge). At least, we're pretty sure they're not.
- They're there because that's their natural habitat. But the young speaker, so intimidated by what he saw, thinks the frogs are out to get him.
- Why him? Well, he admits to having scooped up his fair share of frogspawn in his day. He thinks all the big bullfrogs are gathered there to pay him back for robbing their young.
- It's a funny way to end the poem. We know the frogs aren't going to "get" the speaker. He's probably being a little dramatic.
- But he was certainly shaken by seeing those big, nasty bullfrogs gathered there, and will probably never look at frogspawn the same way again. (Neither will we.)
- The transition from how the speaker sees the frogspawn to how he sees the result of frogspawn (the actual frogs) is a complete one-eighty. He's totally into the gooey frogspawn, and sees it as harmless, even fun. But when he sees the live and croaking bullfrogs, he's sickened and afraid. For the speaker, the joy of frogspawn has been forever spoiled by this traumatic experience.