Death of a Naturalist All year the flax-dam festered in the heart Of the townland; green and heavy

headed Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods. Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun. Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell. There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies, But best of all was the warm thick slobber Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring 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 nimbleSwimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how The daddy frog was called a bullfrog And how he croaked and how the mammy frog Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too For they were yellow in the sun and brown In rain.

The title is amusingly ironic – we cannot imagine real naturalists being so disgusted by croaking frogs. The scene is set in the ‘heart’ of an urban area, where flax-dam has ‘festered’ all year. The verb ‘festered’ is a term of putrefaction and creates a repulsive image of the flax-dam. The lexicon is replete with terms of putrefaction (‘rotted’, ‘sweltered’, gargled’, ‘slobber’, ‘clotted’…). The flax was ‘green and heavy headed’. The alliterative ‘h’ combined with the vowel sounds of ‘heavy headed’ underline the weight of the flax. It had ‘rotted there, weighted down by huge sods. / Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun’. ‘Rotted’ adds to the already repulsive image created, as does the fact that the flax ‘sweltered’. The sun has been personified and appears aggressive as it ‘punished’ the flax. Indelicate onomatopoeia is used to describe the bubbles which ‘gargled delicately’, giving a sense of the unpleasant sound of the place. Apart from the sound of the bubbles, our attention is drawn to the sound made by the bluebottles which ‘wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’. This is an unusual image as sound is not usually described as something tangible. It is as if the sound imprisoned the smell, which would only have grown more pungent as a result. The insects that were found are listed, ‘but best of all was the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water / In the shade of the banks’. Heaney, an inquisitive child, was attracted to the frogspawn. He was aware of its unpleasant nature, noting that it ‘grew like clotted water’, but seems to have coped with it. The simile (‘like clotted water’) creates an accurate visual image of the frogspawn. He records the fact that, as a child, he used to fill ‘jampotfuls of the jellied specs…’ Miss Wall’s explanation of the names of the frogs and their methods of reproduction seems slightly patronising when contrasted to Heaney’s almost scientific interest in the subject.

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Then one hot day when fields were rank With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges To a coarse croaking that I had not heard Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus. Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped: The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it. Seamus Heaney

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The second verse marks the change in Heaney’s attitude to the flax-dam. This is signified not only by the fact that the two verses are physically separated, but by the word ‘then’. His attention was drawn by the ‘coarse croaking’ of the ‘angry frogs’ who had ‘invaded the flax-dam’. The sound of the frogs is emphasised by the alliterative ‘c’. The description of the ‘angry’ frogs as ‘invading’ the flax-dam makes them seem like an organised force. Perhaps, as a child, Heaney thought they were ready to enact ‘vengeance’ upon him for taking the ‘jampotfuls of jellied specks’. Again he portrays the sound as something which was tenable: ‘The air thick with a bass chorus’. The potential danger posed by the ‘angry’ frogs is made apparent by the image of them ‘cocked/ On sods’. It is as if they were guns ready to go off. They were also ‘poised like mud grenades’. This simile portrays the frogs as weapons, and is particularly appropriate when you consider the colour and shape of frogs. A sense of the largeness of the frogs’ necks is conveyed by the simile ‘their loose necks pulsed like sails’. He remembers the frogs’ heads as ‘farting’. This explicit language underlines the unbearable nature of their sound. He was ‘sickened’ by the frogs, ‘turned, and ran’. Hyperbole is used to describe the frogs as ‘great slime kings’, elevating

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