Seamus Heaney's "Death of a Naturalist": Techniques Used for Character Development

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Commentary: ‘Death of a Naturalist' by Seamus Heaney

In the poem ‘Death of a Naturalist', written by Seamus Heaney in 1987, the author develops a symbolic plot of an adult speaker looking back on his childhood, demonstrating how as a young boy, his perception of the same environment suddenly matured and altered, essentially providing a new way of looking at the bridge between childhood and adulthood, and displaying how over time, people's interpretation of their surroundings and of society around them will inevitably change and develop. To elucidate this development, Heaney establishes a definite structure, exposing the two different interpretations, and uses repetitively tangible and highly sensory diction to expose the crucial character development in a constant setting, revealing the poem's themes.

The structure of the poem is fundamental for its purpose to consider the motivations behind two different approaches to the same situation. The poem has two definitive sections, and is divided into two stanzas. The first stanza clearly depicts a picture of innocence, as the child looks upon everything in his surroundings with a seemingly boundless fascination. In such a grim, unpleasant, swampy environment, he says, "Best of all was the warm thick slobber of frogspawn". Conversely, in the second stanza the child approaches the same ‘flax-dam' with a very skeptical attitude, feeling suspicious toward the unknown in his surroundings, and even feeling threatened by the simple "slap and plop" of the frogs. The fact that the two stanzas convey a very different perception of the same environment is also demonstrated by the fact that in the first stanza, the male frog is referred to as "daddy frog", while in the second stanza, the boy perceives the male frogs as "great slime kings".

This shift in interpretation can be effectively analyzed, as the poem is written in first person, and thus the true, intimate sentiments of the child shine through, displaying the genuine attitude of the character, allowing the reader to observe the character development, which leads to new perceptions of the same environment. This is displayed, as the reader truly gets a feeling for the character's trust and affection for the grimy surroundings in the first stanza, as the speaker remembers with an apparent sense of nostalgia how he used to "fill jampotfuls of the jellied specks". By the same token the reader is able to grasp how this trust is lost in the second stanza, and just how threatened the boy feels, when he says: "The great slime kings were gathered there for vengeance." The reader must take a very objective approach to the poem, and take into account the fact that because the poem is written in first person, the speaker's emotions visibly influence the poem. This is demonstrated as he describes the frogs as being "angry" and seeking "vengeance", yet this is obviously just the speaker's interpretation of the scene, and it is thus highly unlikely that the frogs did in fact feel those harsh sentiments, and more likely that the child was just frightened by the setting.

The setting acts as a prominent form of characterization, as the flax-dam is established as an unpleasant, unvarying environment, since every day, the flax-dam "sweltered in the punishing sun". Given that the setting is constant, the character's development can be measured against the setting. In the first stanza, this "rotten" setting builds a paradox, as the child's innocent happiness is shown despite, or because of this seemingly repulsive, uninviting setting. In the second stanza, the child's perception expands and develops, turning this setting into a hostile and threatening environment to him. The child no longer observes everything with a sense of innate fascination, but rather questions how trustworthy this environment is, becoming suddenly aware of the seemingly menacing frogs. Hence, in the eyes of the child, though the actual setting remains constant, its...
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