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Death of a Naturalist

by Seamus Heaney

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711832,228 (4.05)46
"Between my finger and my thumb" "The squat pen rests; snug as a gun." "" -- from 'Digging' With its lyrical and descriptive powers, "Death of a Naturalist "marked the auspicious debut of one of the century's finest poets.

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I met Seamus Heaney only once, a chance encounter in a pub (the Foggy Dew in Temple Bar in Dublin, some time around 1989); he offered to buy me a drink on the basis of having known my parents in his Belfast days, but I was too shy to accept. I wish I had. I would have learned something from even ten minutes’ conversation with him. I also once sat opposite his wife Marie at a dinner, but did not pluck up the courage to say much to her.

He came from Bellaghy, 30 km up the River Bann from my own ancestors in Aghadowey, and this first collection is very much about growing up there and growing into his role as a poet. I knew a few of them from school days: the opening “Digging”, where he sees his vocation as poetry rather than agriculture:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

The heart-wrenching “Mid-Term Break”, about the death of his younger brother in a car accident:

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.

The rather regrettable “Docker”:

Mosaic imperatives bang home like rivets;
God is a foreman with certain definite views

Reading the full collection is well worth it. There’s a real underlying narrative, of a shift from his family heritage on the farm and boyhood fascinations with the land, to adulthood and poetry, There are some lovely natural images, such as “Waterfall”:

Simultaneous acceleration
And sudden braking; water goes over
Like villains dropped screaming to justice.

And romance in a sequence beginning with “Twice Shy”:

Her scarf à la Bardot,
In suede flats for the walk,
She came with me one evening
For air and friendly talk.
We crossed the quiet river,
Took the embankment walk.

And at the end, another moment of self-dedication in “Personal Helicon”:

I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

I don’t read a lot of poetry, and I should read more. ( )
  nwhyte | Dec 27, 2022 |
Heaney's childhood growing up on an Irish far is apparent in this collection, as farm motifs are the unifying theme. His knowledge of raising animals, harvesting peat, and growing potatoes are tinged with echoes of hardship as he recounts the potato famine, the horror of a frog invasion, and the drowning of kittens (seen as pests on a working farm) which seems to create the title imagery. His wonder at the natural world as a child has been affected to the point where he sees the death in it as much as the life, and so his instinct to become a farmer (ie a naturalist) is lost. This is further supported by his taking up the pen as his chosen implement (rather than a shovel/spade), and his acceptance of the office-based "modern" world where nature has no place except when confined to words on a page. ( )
  JaimieRiella | Feb 25, 2021 |
For me, much more accessible than his later work. Some of it is still a bit too far out and obtuse though.
Standouts are; Digging, Blackberry picking, Early purges, Midterm break. ( )
  mjhunt | Jan 22, 2021 |
Heaney's first collection of poetry includes some of his most well-known pieces. It also contains 'Scaffolding' and 'Personal Helicon', two very touching poems. This is a wonderful, short selection of works that pre-date many of Heaney's works about nature and time, but that nonetheless showcase his young talent. ( )
  ephemeral_future | Aug 20, 2020 |
"Scaffolding" ( )
  CLPowers | Dec 6, 2019 |
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Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
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This is the poetry collection Death of a Naturalist. One of the individual poems in the collection also has the same title, so take care if combining or making work-to-work connections.
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"Between my finger and my thumb" "The squat pen rests; snug as a gun." "" -- from 'Digging' With its lyrical and descriptive powers, "Death of a Naturalist "marked the auspicious debut of one of the century's finest poets.

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