Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’ and ‘Death of a Naturalist’ represents the poets past. ‘Digging’ covers themes of family traditions and how he feels about breaking this tradition of digging, whereas ‘Death of a Naturalist’ looks at his childhood past, exploring innocence and pleasure of childhood activities and comparing it to the seriousness of growing up. His aim is to explore his past, thinking about his family, environment and childhood. He achieves this through analysing events through memories, personal feelings, imagery, use of senses and many literacy devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration and rhyme patterns.
In ‘Digging’ Heaney is thinking about his family traditions of the past. He has broken this tradition by becoming a writer and perhaps feels a little guilty about that. ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.’ While writing we hear his father’s spade which makes him think of the past. He thinks of how skilled his father was and how he did it for a living, planting potatoes. However in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ Heaney is thinking about his childhood past; collecting frogspawn from the ‘flaxdam’ and how he had been fascinated in watching them develop from tadpoles to frogs. He relishes these child-like activities in the first stanza but in the second, there is a sense of time passing; a loss of innocence, when he feels the toads want to seek revenge on him.Order now
There is a sense of environment in both poems. In ‘Digging’ his memory takes him back to the potato fields where his father and grandfather planted and dug up potatoes for a living. He remembers working with them as a child and appreciated that they were skilled men who had acquired precise and accurate techniques when digging up potatoes. He uses a colloquial expression when he writes ‘By God the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man’. He enjoyed helping them too, ‘Loving their cool hardness in our hands’.
Heaney’s mind goes further back when he thinks of his grandfather digging peat, which kept the family warm. He contrasts the way his grandfather carried his milk ‘sloppily’ to how he ‘cut more turf in a day. Than any other man ……’ In ‘Death of a Naturalist’ the environment is where Heaney collected his frogspawn. He describes this setting in such a descriptive way that the reader can almost smell and feel the heat of the day. He uses adjectives such as ‘festered’ and ‘sweltered’ for this affect. Heaney uses these sound effects in his poems to stimulate the reader’s imagination. In ‘Digging’ we hear the ‘clean rasping sound’ of the spade. ‘Nicking and Slicing’ the peat gives us a sense of the activity. Not only do we hear the sounds, we are also aware of the smells, ‘the cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap of soggy peats. We can imagine the act of digging up the potatoes in a cold, soggy atmosphere.
Heaney also uses battle images in his poems to create an effect. In ‘Digging’ ‘the squat pen rests; snug as a gun’ is a simile which might suggest that the pen can fire out words to describe life in general, reflection of the past. There is a repetition at the end of the poem which implies he uses his pen to dig up ideas rather than using a spade. Battle images also occur in the ‘Death of a Naturalist’, in the second stanza where there is a change of tone; the innocence of his childhood is lost as he returns to the dam. The frogs are now seen as ‘obscene threats’ poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting’. There seems to be a huge fear overwhelming Heaney as he sees them in a different light. Sounds echo his fear with alliteration ‘coarse croaking’. He also uses onomatopoeia for example ‘slap and plop’ of their bodies jumping.
In ‘Death of a Naturalist’ Heaney’s child-like innocence seems to have disappeared as he ‘sickens’ and believes that they are taking vengeance on him. The poem seems to turn into a horror scene, where he believes his hand would be grabbed by them if he were to take the spawn.
In conclusion, I feel that both of these poems reflect on Heaney’s memories of the past. ‘Digging’ suggests that he regards his family traditions as something to be proud of, but feels that he was unable to continue due to a changing world and education. On the other hand in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ he looks at growing up; the passing of innocence to a world of reality, where life is not so straightforward. His ideal world of nature, instead of being exciting and fascinating, is now threatening. He is growing up and experiencing the darker sides to life.