DEATH OF A NATURALIST – an interpretation

The title of Death of a Naturalist is not accidental, the ostensible drama and hyperbole apt metonymy for the unnatural quickening and capricious nature of a modern childhood transition to adulthood. The young boy, implied to be Heaney himself with the use of first person pronouns, is initially oblivious to the oppressive semantic field. The punishing sun and the festering dam anaemic to the will of the adventurer, the synaesthesia in ‘wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’ powerless to distract from the superlative in ‘But best of all’. The warm thick slobber, the ‘heart’ of his life experience, dominates his every spring. The parochial fixation is manifested in the shrine-like attention to the ‘jampotfuls of the jellied specks’, the word ‘ranging’ on the windowsill exemplifying the boy’s specious comprehension of competent care for the natural phenomena, but equally demonstrating his impressive patience, the alliterative ‘wait and watch’ emphasised by the preceding caesura. The continuous enjambment, metaphoric of the boy’s inexorable enthusiasm, is juxtaposed with his guileless immaturity in describing the knowledge he’s learnt from Miss Walls regarding the workings of the cycle, and its fatuous associations to the weather. Poignantly however, the caesura abruptly ending the first stanza forebodes change.

The single moment in time emphasised in stanza two, the ‘one day’, the sounds he ‘had not heard before’, signals an awakening, a realisation, a life changing juncture. The negative semantic field now turns militant, the angry frogs ascribed as grenades, invading his thoughts and threatening obscenely. Sound imagery is used to evoke the nascent torment, the plosive ‘thick’ highlighting the depth of this new but blurred intelligence, and ‘chorus’, positioning the sound as overwhelming, unrelenting. The adult spawn is seeking vengeance. The boy is ripped out of his world in an instant, with the short sentence, ‘I sickened, turned, and ran’, but Heaney, with the child’s hypothesis of the ‘great slime kings’ as antagonists, is keen to impress that his immaturity still abounds, and is thus indubitably not ready for the transition. Here Heaney laments his own impressions of the world he has known, with his younger brother’s untimely death, and the increasing violence in Ireland prematurely wrenching young souls from their natural life progression and stages. In such context, the naturalist doesn’t stand a chance. In this vein, Death of a Naturalist is as much a political poem as anything else, surreptitiously designed and seemingly innocuous in its tale of a naïve rural boy, yet damning of a society that expedites the growth of the child for selfish insensitive adult purposes. It is the loss of innocence in Death of a Naturalist that Heaney draws our attention to, but it is not just the loss of the singular childhood of the poem: it is a collective loss, a loss that attenuates us all. 


This analysis is a part of a series of expositions into texts I’ve been teaching GCSE students. Other poetry essays include: As Imperceptibly as GriefOzymandiasExcerpt fromThe Prelude vs To Autumn, Mametz Wood vs Excerpt from The Prelude, Excerpt from The Prelude vs To Autumn. There are other poetry essays on Cloud 9 Writing, a platform for high quality writing. 

Other essays include expositions into Macbeth: here, and here, and Lord of the Flies

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.


  1. A great example of cogent analysis delivered in complex rhetorical prose. I have one issue, though, with the line: ‘the increasing violence in Ireland prematurely wrenching young souls from their natural life progression’. Along with many of the other poems published in Death of a Naturalist, the eponymous one was written in the mid-sixties, first published in the Queen’s University of Belfast pamphlet 11 Poems, in 1965. This predates the outbreak of the Troubles by at least 4 years, if we use the August 69 riots as the beginning. Because of this, I see some responses to Heaney’s early poetry that attends to their ‘subliminal violence’ as a misreading, or reader’s response, interpolating our awareness of the Troubles back into work that could not have responded to events which had not occurred, the classic being ‘Digging’s’ gun simile. To me, a far more prevalent feature of ‘Naturalist’ is sexual repression, from Miss Wall’s bowdlerised biology lessons to the speaker’s fear of breeding frogs. Here’s an interesting essay on Heaney that elaborates on this further.


    1. HI Jonathan
      Love this response. Thank you.
      I see your point re the possibility of post hoc rationalisation, but i would suggest that IRA troubles were happening and brewing for a long time before the 70’s most notorious conflicts. Take for example the late 50’s Border Campaign. Living in Ireland i am certain would have had a palpable undercurrent of fear that could have permeated into Heaney’s work, the militant language perhaps supporting this, but of course, i am only postulating.

      The sexuality angle is definitely understandable, the awakening, probably on reaching early puberty, is suggested by the immature reaction of sickening and running from the realisation, and highlighted by the contrast of his primary school naivety. This also maintains the death of the naturalist theme. But for me, I wanted to focus on the notion of transition being too quick in a modern society, an issue that i feel is a blight on modern times, or at least not adequately dealt with or investigated sufficiently at home or in schools. The rural, traditional upbringing and its timeless romantic evocations, is perhaps Heaney’s ultimate contrast tool in defining a modern day as a place that shocks rather than eases us into transitional stages. Having said that, that might be life; there may not be an easy path ever?


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