Death of a Naturalist

December 3, 2017 General Studies

We recently studied two poems which illustrated the transition from childhood into adolescence. These two poems were “In Mrs. Tilscher’s Class” by Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist”. Seamus Heaney penned “Death of a Naturalist” in the mid-1960s. It is set in Bellaghy, Derry, Northern Ireland (where he was raised). It is written from Heaney’s personal point of view, and focuses mainly on his obsession with the world around him, particularly his love of frogs, to convey the growth experience throughout the poem. Death of a Naturalist” contains two stanzas, each used to deliver contrasting points of view. Each is written using iambic pentameter and blank verse, where no obvious rhyme scheme is apparent. In this piece, Heaney occupies a very fluent and elaborate style of writing, suggesting that he fully understands the situation at home. He does not appear confused by the transition experienced. He is instead comfortable with the change, and accepts it as necessary in his rite of passage.

The first stanza characterizes Heaney as a young boy, eager to engage with his surroundings, before moving into the second, in which his views on nature begin to alter to the point where he “sickened turned and ran” – consequently symbolizing the “death of a naturalist”. The divide in stanzas is extremely palpable in that the first is 21 lines long, whereas the second is limited to only 12. As well as this, the immediate change in tone and language very clearly mark the distinction.

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The first stanza makes use of both positive and negative imagery to portray the boy’s adoration of his surroundings. Heaney uses grotesque descriptions such as “warm thick slobber” to suggest to the reader that a child is rendered utterly fascinated by things both beautiful and disgusting, thus highlighting the boy’s delight. Heaney skilfully practices and maintains a kind of childlike language in the first stanza, referring to “daddy frog” and “mammy frog”, and makes great use of metaphors.

Heaney effectively engages his reader through sensory imagery. By explaining that bluebottle flies “wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell”, he is able to appeal to a reader’s senses. He uses similar techniques in order to set the scene, for example, personification; the “punishing sun”. He also employs oxymoronic language, describing the bubbles as “gargling delicately”.


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