Seamus Heaney is one of today’s greatest living poets. His poems have the ability to reflect complex issues and themes, like politics, heritage, and conflict. The poems in Death of a Naturalist are centred on his personal search for his identity, and his feelings towards his family. While looking at these poems it becomes clear to the reader that Heaney’s Irish heritage, are entwined with his identity, his views, and his family. These issues are fused together with the personal acceptance of becoming a poet and his experience of growing up.
I will be looking at the first four poems in the Death of a Naturalist collection in particular the techniques that Heaney uses to present himself and his family, in order to create poignancy and engage those who are reading his work. In the poem “Digging” Heaney describes the deftness and dexterity in which his father performs his job as a farmer. Heaney’s family profession has always been farming “the old man could handle a spade Just like his old man”.
Heaney starts the poem off by saying “The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. This simile draws parallels with the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword”, which indicates that Heaney feels as though writing is an effective weapon, and gives the impression of power at Heaney’s fingertips. To me this poem seems to be a Heaney writing a justification for not joining the family profession, but at the same time celebrating his chosen field of work (while doing the same for his family as well).
Heaney mentions in the poem that his family are very skilled at what they do “My grandfather cut more turf in a day Than any other man In Toner’s bog”; almost counteracting a possible feeling of guilt, as at the end of the poem he mentions, “I’ve no spade to follow men like that”. Through out the whole poem there is repetition of the word “digging”, and so Heaney ends the poem with the lines “The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it”. Here Heaney may be saying that he can be a man of action as well through writing his poetry not just some pen pusher.
In this poem the diction used is effective in describing the emotions Heaney feels when he looks at his father “digging”, an interesting line is ” living roots awaken in my head”. The connotations with the word “roots” are family, ancestors, and one’s natural environment. The word “roots” also links in with the last line “I’ll dig with it” which indicates that Heaney will find his “roots” through using his own “spade”, which happens to be his pen.
In the poem “Follower” Heaney reflects on how he felt “clumsy” in the presence of his father when he was young. Once again Heaney describes the skill his father possessed when it came to farming “his shoulders globed like a full sail strung”, in a metaphorical way Heaney describes his father as a man with great momentum in his everyday actions. The line “His eye narrowed and angled at the ground” the effect of this line is that the reader can see the precision, and skill that Heaney’s father possessed when working.
Also the descriptions of the skill and deftness of Heaney’s father contrasts with the “nuisance, tripping, falling” that Heaney describes himself as when he was young. However at the end of the poem the tables turn “It is my father who keeps stumbling”. To me this doesn’t sound like arrogance but it’s rather Heaney showing that his father has aged and now Heaney he is an expert in his own field (possibly writing). Mid Term Break is a poem that focuses on the loss of family, and Heaney’s experience of having to cope with the death of a loved one.
In this poem Heaney mentions how he felt uncomfortable when he was treated like an adult ” I was embarrassed By old men standing up to shake my hand”. Heaney shows how the death of his younger brother was a stepping-stone for him entering the adult world, as part of growing up is learning how to cope with loss. This contrasts with the baby which “which cooed and laughed and rocked the pram”, this shows that the baby is unaware of death and loss and remains oblivious to the tragedy that has just happened. The poem ends with a shocking line “A four foot box, foot for every year”.
This last line is effective because it gives the reader a clear picture of how small and young this child was when he died The “four foot box” gives the reader an image of a small coffin, which is always a shocking sight. Out of the four poems in the first section I think that this poem mentions the most about Heaney and his family, and has many themes that relate to family life. In this poem Heaney shows how deeply effected his family was after the death of the child “I met my father crying”. It becomes clear to the reader that Heaney has strong ties with his family and his community.
But at the same time the poem shows how Heaney is disconnected from his family in some ways. The tone through out the poem is not emotional, or sad, but rather distant, and stoic. Heaney may of done this to show that he did feel separated from his family, and maybe that is because he was the first to be educated. Even though this poem reveals a lot about Heaney and his family, I prefer the poem “Personal Helicon” as it focuses mainly on Heaney and his source of inspiration for writing poems. “Personal Helicon” in my view is the best of the poems in the first section.
The title itself already gives the reader an impression before reading it. The meaning of the word “Helicon” relates back to Greek mythology, as this was the well that the Muses guarded. Out of the nine muses three of them were named after poetry, Callilope, Erato, and Enterpe. Heaney through out the poem draws parallels to the idea about a clear source of inspiration like the Helicon guarded by the Muses. He mentions that it was the “dark drop, the trapped sky” this creates an image of staring up from the bottom of the well, where the sky is limited to a ring.
This “trapped sky” could be symbolic of Heaney’s unique perspective and interpretations of events in his life which can be seen in his poetry. Heaney uses omnomatopoeia to describe how much he “savoured the rich crash”, the effect of this line is that the reader can share the sounds that Heaney heard when exploring these wells. When Heaney mentions the words “big eyed Narcissus”, and “darkness echoing” all of these lines relate to themes regarding identity, which may link into Heaney’s problem of finding his identity.
Heaney coming to terms with his identity, and way of life is mentioned in most of his earlier poems. The line “As a child, they could not keep me away from wells” shows how Heaney relates his childhood love of wells, to his love of poetry; Heaney’s childhood is one of his sources of inspiration when it comes to writing poetry. Another character from Greek mythology Heaney mentions is “Narcissus” who was the vain youth who fell in love with his own reflection.
I think Heaney uses this character to show to the reader that writing poetry may be a way of reflecting, and discovering more about his own identity. Here Heaney combines the tale of the “Muses”, and “Narcissus” in order to produce an ancient and engaging atmosphere. All though nothing is mentioned about Heaney’s family in this poem, it still gives insight into Heaney himself. In a sense this poem explains Heaney’s other poems as it shows his enthusiasm and his motives for writing poetry.
Overall the poems in the first section focus on Heaney’s acceptance of moving away from the family profession, his admiration for his family members, and his experience of growing up. I think that these themes are found in his early poems because at this stage Heaney was still developing his confidence as a poet. It is also clear from the early poems that Heaney uses effective techniques like onomatopoeia, similes, metaphors, repetition, and diction in his poetry in order to make his poetry more engaging for the reader.