Death of a Naturalist
by Michael Woods
The death referred to in this poem is metaphorical and refers to the loss of innocent enthusiasm of a child as the realities of life begin to be sensed but not quite understood. A naturalist is, of course, someone who spends time enthusiastically studying nature. The idea of collecting and observing natural things and, notably, frogspawn is an almost universal activity in primary schools.
This poem is partly about the transition from innocence to experience and the fact that, as we grow up, we must come to terms with what might be unpalatable realities. In this poem, it is the reality of sexuality that “invades” the child’s consciousness. He is terrified at the end of the poem, being convinced that the “angry frogs” will seek vengeance for his having taken their spawn. And here is another facet of experience explored by Heaney in a more direct manner than in ‘Blackberry Picking’; it is that of punishment for deeds done. The fact that the child believed the frogs “Were gathered there for vengeance” and that he “knew” the spawn would “clutch” his hand suggests that he felt, in part at least, that he deserved their “vengeance”. This clearly shows that the child’s relationship with nature is sometimes a problematic one. The metamorphosis of the tadpoles into frogs corresponds in the poem to the change in the child’s perceptions as he sees the site of generation.
Despite the secure and untroubled presentation of the child’s primary school experience, there is an undertone of threat in the first six lines of the poem that pave the way for the much more openly aggressive aspects of the second section. The verbs “festered”, “rotted” and “sweltered” convey very effectively the effect of the “punishing sun”. It is the imagined punitive aspect of nature that scares the child at the end of the poem. Lines 5 and 6 foreground details that would surely be fascinating to the young naturalist. Not only does Heaney give precise visual images, he creates a very accurate soundscape. The plosive alliterated b’s that link “Bubbles” and “bluebottles” is joined by the throaty “gargled” which is leavened by the adjective “delicately”. Line 6 employs the technique of synaesthesia (literally “senses together”) in order to make the atmosphere tangible so that we are given a simultaneous visual and aural experience of the flies that “Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell”.
The idea that underpins the poem is encapsulated in Wordsworth’s famous couplet from The Prelude (Book 1) in which he says:
Fair seed time had my soul and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.
Wordsworth presents, in natural terms, the idea of a plant being nurtured from a seed and links this to his personal growth through childhood and beyond. He carefully signals, though, that he experienced both “beauty” and “fear”. In the same way, Heaney writes about being entranced by the variegated beauty of nature as well as its frightening dimension.
In the first section of the poem, the young child’s sense of wonder and beauty is focused upon. He is nurtured in the context of innocence in an environment that is presided over by the protective presence of Miss Walls who preserves the children’s’ innocence by telling them that the way frogs reproduce simply involves a male frog croaking and the female laying eggs. No mention of the sexual reality is mentioned. The naïve view of the child is further emphasised in the fact that he attaches no more significance to the frogs’ reproductive process than to the idea that they might signal the weather: “For they were yellow in the sun and brown / In rain.”
The rhythm of the verse in lines 7-10 reflects the breathless enthusiasm of the child recounting the details of his naturalist’s investigations. There is real relish in the sense data of experience. Heaney marshals the noise of consonant and vowel to great effect in lines 8-9: “But best of all was the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water…” The assonantal associations of sound capture the globular shape of the spawn as well as its tactile quality that is like mucus. Of course, that which is perceived as best becomes worst as the “great slime kings…gathered…for vengeance”.
The emergence of tadpoles form the spawn is conveyed in precise terms, too. The child would:
“wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
The alliterated w’s and b’s capture first the sense of protracted anticipation and then the eruption of the egg sacs as the tadpoles “burst” into their motile life. The short “i” sound in “nimble” and “swimming” reinforce the sense of freed action as the next stage in metamorphosis is effected.
There is a definite break between the two verse paragraphs beyond the obvious typographical division. The word “Then” signals a change and the adjectives “hot”, “rank”, “angry” and “coarse” communicate the effect on the child who had previously been innocently engaged with nature. There is also a shift form a female to a male imperative as the sounds we hear are prefaced as a “bass chorus”. A clear sense of male threat is evident here. There is an ominous atmosphere created and the sinister undertones detectable in the first paragraph become a more palpable threat through the imagery of potential violence and destruction. The frogs are described as being “cocked / On sods” (lines ) as if they are guns ready to be discharged. The sense of disgust and fear encapsulated in the sentence, “I sickened, turned and ran.” Is prepared for in Heaney’s lexical choices. The frogs are “gross-bellied” and an almost saurian impression is conveyed in “their loose necks pulsed like sails”. The words “hopped”, “slap” and “plop” suggest something of a drain or cistern where waste is egested. This idea is clinched in the shocking image of the frogs’ mouths being seen by the child as anuses discharging a foul afflatus with “their blunt heads farting”. The frogs are now seen as “The great slime kings” who “Were gathered there for vengeance”. There is no doubt in the child’s mind that he will be punished for taking spawn to out on the windowsill at school: “I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.”
The safe and enclosed world presided over by Miss Walls has become a dangerous place of exposure for the developing child. Security changes to threat just as the tadpoles metamorphose into frogs.
This poem signals a clear acknowledgement of the complexities of the awakening of sexual awareness and the simultaneous sense of loss and revulsion that is also linked to initiation in some way. The child will somehow have to negotiate a pathway through the kingdom of slime that leaves behind the classroom vision of nature that concentrates on the appeal of “dragonflies and spotted butterflies”. The young naturalist is annihilated by the real imperatives of life that show themselves to him somewhat prematurely. This rings true as there is a universal identification with the idea that childhood is raided too soon by the knowledge of the adult.