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Death of A Naturalist

Paul Maullin

on 24 May 2010

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Transcript of Heaney

All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. 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 and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain. Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
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.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
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. Death of a Naturalist Context Summary Structure Themes Title Language 1 Language 2 Questions The poem has a fairly simple structure. In the first section, Heaney describes how the frogs would spawn in the lint hole, with a digression into his collecting the spawn, and how his teacher encouraged his childish interest in the process. In the second section, Heaney records how one day he heard a strange noise and went to investigate - and found that the frogs, in huge numbers, had taken over the flax-dam, gathering for revenge on him (to punish his theft of the spawn). He has an overwhelming fear that, if he puts his hand into the spawn again, it will seize him - and who knows what might happen then?
The movement between the 1st and 2nd sections is underlined by the use of the word 'THEN' at the start of the second stanza.
The poem makes use of 'Enjambment'(one line running into next) and this gives the poem a sense of flow.

The poem is set out in two sections of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter lines). Heaney uses onomatopoeia more lavishly here than in any poem - and many of the sounds are very indelicate: “gargled”, “slap and plop” and “farting”. The lexicon is full of terms of putrefaction, ordure (excrement or faeces) and generally unpleasant things - “festered”, “rotted”, “slobber”, “clotted water”, “rank/With cowdung” and slime kings”.
We also get a sense of menace through the use of the sound of the frogs as a 'threat'. The use of miltary terms such as the simile of the frogs like 'mud grenades' as well as others.

The language of the poem swings between childish language and more adult language.
In the first section, the poet notes the festering in the flax-dam, but can cope with this familiar scene of things rotting and spawn hatching. Perhaps, as an inquisitive child he felt some pride in not being squeamish - he thinks of the bubbles from the process as gargling “delicately”. He is confident in taking the frogspawn - he does it every year, and watches the “jellied specks” become “fattening dots” then turn into tadpoles. He has an almost scientific interest in knowing the proper names (“bullfrog” and “frogspawn”) rather than the teacher's patronizing talk of “daddy” and “mammy”, and in the idea of forecasting the weather with the spawn.

The poem's title is amusingly ironic - by a naturalist, we would normally mean someone with expert scientific knowledge of living things and ecology (what we once called natural history), someone like David Attenborough, Northern Ireland is famous for producing Linen and this material is made from flax.
In the poem Heaney recalls an event from his childhood in Northern Ireland when he went to visit the dam.
Like other poems by Heaney, The poem looks at the natural world and the way children are able to learn lessons that apply to wider life. Poem begins with the narrator describing the dam and a clear sense of the child's delight in nature comes through.
The narrator describes how he used to take frogspawn and also recalls the childish explanation of this that he was given this from the teacher.
The poem ends with the narrator describing one occasion when he went down to the dam and it appeared to be different. Childhood and Loss of Innocence
The poem refers to a specific incident, but can be seen as metaphorical for the way in which children grow up. The narrator learns a lesson that innocent and unthreatening experiences can actually be the opposite.
Although there is no literal death in the poem, it does deal with the metaphorical death of a childhood view of nature.
The attitude of the narrator to nature is crucial to the poem. Nature is not a benign force and should not be taken for granted.
One of the key aspects of the poem is the changes we go through as we move from childhood to adulthood. the narrator is trying to find his new identity, as he moves into adolescence.

STANZA 1 STANZA 2 Who is the 'Naturalist'?
Briefly outline what happens in the poem and why it is titled 'Death of a Naturalist"
Find three examples of figurative language which enrich the description.
Find some examples of where the poet moves from the language of the adult to the language of the child. What clues are there that the child 'persona' is very young?
In what ways is the poem about the end of innocence? Use quotations in your answer. Write at least 5 paragraphs.

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