Michael Wells

"Death of a Naturalist" to "The Strand at Lough Beg":
A move toward restraint in the poetry of Seamus Heaney


Copyrighted texts can be accessed here, but only with permission from instructor.

"Death of a Naturalist," from the 1966 collection by the same name, was published when Seamus Heaney was only 27. "The Strand at Lough Beg" was published thirteen years later, in 1979. The years which separate the two poems are reflected in Heaney's use of restraint in building a depth of emotion.

In "Death of a Naturalist," the speaker describes the flax-dam as a strange, slimy wonderland which captured his attention when he was schoolboy. He recalls the days when he would visit this place, collect jars of "frogspawn," and take them to the school for scientific observation. The second stanza recalls a particular day, when the speaker's fascination turned to terror. On this visit to the flax-dam, he felt the collective hatred of the frogs who seemed prepared to enact their revenge--and he fled.

In "The Strand at Lough Beg," the speaker addresses his deceased cousin, in a kind of elegy. The structure of this poem is more difficult to follow. The speaker imagines his cousin driving in an unfamiliar place and being stopped by his eventual killers. The speaker then recalls the land, and the life his cousin lived near Lough Beg. The final section is more of a dream, wherein the speaker and his cousin are walking beside Lough Beg and the speaker discovers that his cousin is bloody and dying. He cleans his cousin then he respectfully, lovingly and ritualistically prepares him for burial.

Each poem is effective but "The Strand" expertly balances death, politics, religion and place in language which is both subtle and convincing. In the first two lines, the voice is that of a storyteller, recalling a scene from his imagination:

Leaving the white glow of filling stations
And a few lonely streetlamps among fields (1, 2)
Already, we have the feel of someone driving away from the safety of lights, out into the countryside. Heaney uses simple language to construct the two dreamlike images of light. We do not have a subject for this sentence until line 3 and when the "you" of the poem is introduced:
You climbed the hills towards Newtonhamilton
Past the Fews Forest, out beneath stars--
(3-4)
Suddenly the poem is placed more specifically by the mention of the location names of Newtonhamilton and Fews Forest. Also the sense of a quiet, nighttime isolation is reinforced by placing the you, the cousin, "out beneath stars"(4). The language remains calm, quiet and simple.

"Death of a Naturalist" displays no such restraint. The point of view is that of a speaker thinking back to this formative experience in the flax-dam with the frogs. As such, the wild language is in large part due to the narrator revisiting his schoolboy enthusiasm for not just nature, but aspects of nature which many people consider repulsive. For example, note the point of view in lines 7-9:

There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
Glorifying the repulsive is a long respected tradition among boys, whether that entails pulling legs off spiders, terrorizing ant colonies (using only the sun and a magnifying glass), and at a more advanced level, using squirrels as BB gun targets. This is an important component to the poem because these are the ways that schoolboys come to appreciate and understand nature. So the wild language is somewhat justified by the point of view. The word choices are, compared to the later poem, over-the-top: "festered"(1), "rotted"(3), "Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun"(4). These lines not only set up the place and the speaker's recollection of his boyhood curiosity, but they also establish a tone which is certainly entertaining and at times humorous. In the next lines Heaney continues with the description of the flax-dam:
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell (5,6
The repetition of "b" sounds and "l" sounds makes the line itself is bubble. This is an example of a line that would simply not fit in the later poem. Certainly it is effective within the fast-paced, wild language of "Death of a Naturalist." "The Strand at Lough Beg" is much too respectful and serious, and such a line might well serve as a distraction. As it stands in this earlier poem, we hear the ground bubbling and gargling (although "delicately") and we see bluebottle flowers serving as boundaries around the sounds and smells of this special place. In lines 11-15 the speaker appears in the poem:
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles.
The speaker is describing himself as the young scientist collecting the frogspawn and observing as the creatures come alive in the goo. Of course the tadpoles don't simply come alive. They are "fattening dots" that "burst" (14). The use of "burst" yields a surprising, violent feel, and foreshadows the boy's awareness of the power and unpredictability of nature. These very visual lines (11-15) also depict the boy becoming a naturalist. What does this word mean in the title? After all "naturalist" is a rather weighty, academic term to apply to a boy who collects gooey frogspawn. As such, the title has a couple of effects. It is a kind of heavy handed overstatement which brings out the absurdity of the boy's final confrontation with the frogs. Yet it also sets us up for the end which is quite serious, and even terrifying (certainly from the boy's perspective). If, by definition, the naturalist believes that truth is derived from nature, then the naturalist within the speaker has died by the end. His earlier, profound, connection to nature has changed to an adversarial relationship. Still, the title stands as a dramatic overstatement which would be entirely out of place in "The Strand at Lough Beg." After all, this title ("The Strand...") is merely the name of a location--and as such it is understated and respectful. No escalation of language would help what is so inherently powerful--that is, the death of a relative.

How does Heaney develop the significance of place in "The Strand at Lough Beg"? Remember, the poem begins with speaker addressing his cousin. He tells his imagined story of his cousin being flagged down in hostile territory. He gives this hostile territory an added depth of meaning by alluding to Sweeney, a character from Irish prose and poetry (footnote, Norton, 1384). The allusion not only adds historical dimension to our understanding of the area (Fews Forest, Newtonhamilton) but it lends a mythical quality to cousin Colum McCartney's journey. It creates the notion that he was a sort of modern day hero, at least in the mind of the speaker. The shift of place, then, begins with line 14:

Where you weren't known and far from what you knew:
The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,
Church Island's spire, its soft treeline of yew
(14-16).
Again, these are quiet, slow lines. The end rhyme, which also concludes the stanza, yields a musical quality. The fact that Heaney rhymes alternating lines in spots, and not throughout, indicates a respect for his subject matter. He avoids the sing-songy feel of a predictable rhyme scheme while maintaining the gentle music which the land evokes. The poem takes another turn at the beginning of the second stanza, as the speaker recalls his cousin's life near Lough Beg:
There you used to hear guns fired behind the house
Long before rising time, when duck shooters
Haunted the marigolds and bulrushes,
But still were scared to find spent cartridges,
Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected,
On your way across the strand to fetch the cows.
(17-22)
There is an ambiguity of violence in these lines. We don't know if the guns belong to hunters or if they were enemy guns. This ambiguity combines with the implied violence of the first stanza for an uneasy, powerless feel. The description of the cartridges as "genital" is puzzling. It is not clear whether he is drawing out the masculine instinct toward competition and violence or whether he is speaking of a fear so fundamental that one could feel it in his/her groin. The contrast between innocence and violence is further brought out with the reference to Colum dutifully going out to the cows. Cows are such peaceful creatures, yet they are ultimately, mercilessly slaughtered. The second part of this second stanza brings out how politics are played out in this rural location:
For you and yours and yours and mine fought shy,
Spoke an old language of conspirators
And could not crack the whip or seize the day:
Big-voiced scullions, herders, feelers round
Haycocks and hindquarters, talkers in byres,
Slow arbitrators of the burial ground.
(23-28)
Again, a rhyme ends the stanza. These are images of families and farmhands, on this sacred, historically significant land, talking politics on every level. We understand that no matter where they met or what they planned, whether yelling or whispering, their efforts were futile. Thus the tone is sad and resigned.

Both of these poems build up to a final confrontation of sorts. In "Death of a Naturalist" the speaker recalls confronting his newly discovered fear of nature and then running away. In the later poem, the speaker confronts (in present tense) his cousin's death, and confers upon him an ultimate, religious respect. In "The Strand.." that last stanza is a dream sequence. The speaker imagines that he and his cousin are walking alongside Lough Beg. The stanza starts out with a surreal description:

Across the strand of yours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge.
(29-32)
The cows know something is up. The land is covered with a mysterious mist. It is difficult to place this section with the others. This section resembles the first stanza in that it is product of the speaker's imagination. Yet in the first stanza, he seems to be struggling with what really happened to his cousin, or at least how it happened. We see his uncertainty in those earlier lines:
Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?
Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights
That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down.
(11-13)
However, as we near the poem's end, the speaker is choosing to dream his cousin's death on his (the speaker') own terms:
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes.
(35-37)
The cousin is on his knees, as if praying, dirty and bloody. Indeed the cows in the mist felt death in air. But the speaker is at least with him. The last lines describe the speaker's actions:
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.
(38-44)
This is a description of a religious ritual. The cleansing is the cleansing of baptism, and I assume (though I cannot remember) similar to that which is done at a church funeral. Of course the speaker uses what is at hand, ingredients from the very land long respected and elevated by the poem's title. He cleans his cousin in moss and dew. What is perhaps most striking about final lines is the absence of any kind of hate or expression of revenge. Instead, the ritual is described as controlled, respectful and methodical. The focus, like other elegies, is on a love and respect for the dead rather than a hatred of forces beyond our control.

"Death of a Naturalist" ends in more of a flourish of grotesque, sick-making images of the army of frogs, which had come to life in the heat of the flax-dam. Heaney describes the frogs at this changed place:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
(29-30)
Not only were they making sounds that the speaker suddenly perceived as displeasing and crude, but these sounds began to represent a kind of threat. Again, notice the extreme language. Like the "fattening dots" which "burst" in the first stanza (14), these lines describe the frogs as "poised like mud grenades" (30) Without consulting the OED, one can safely deduce the meaning of the "blunt heads farting" (30). Of course these are recollections and the speaker is trying to remember the details as he felt, and heard them, as a boy. Still, "blunt heads farting" is a phrase which would be quite out of place in "The Strand at Lough Beg." And unlike the speaker's control and respect in the later poem, the boy in "Death of a Naturalist" runs from his fear, knowing "that if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it" (33).

We can speculate about the changes a poet goes through in his/her writing and personal life. And if we look at only two poems, than they are indeed mere speculations. Certainly a 27 year old man is going to tackle certain subjects that he would likely not attempt as a 40 year old. Those thirteen years seem to have produced a profound change in the writings of Seamus Heaney. Perhaps dealing with death sobered him up from his younger days. Whatever the case, the later poem deals with a more complex combination of elements, and deals with them with the appropriate restraint and seriousness.

Works Cited:

Heaney, Seamus. Poems: 1965-1975.   New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature  , Vol. 2. Fifth ed. M.H. Abrams, ed. New York: Norton, 1986.


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