Book Review: Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney

Year of First Publication: 1966

Year of Publication for This Edition: 1988

Number of Pages: 40

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Genre: Poetry

Sub-Genres: Modern Poetry


Welcome to the second week of Reading Ireland Month! You can learn more about the event at 746 Books, and be sure to check out the rest of the Reading Ireland posts here.

A while back, I bought a copy of Poems: 1965-1975, a collection containing all of the poems from Seamus Heaney’s first four books. Or, so I thought. Once I got it home, I noticed this little note on the copyright page:

Seven poems that appeared in the original edition of Death of a Naturalist are not included in this volume.

I assumed that this must be the work of some nosy editor at FSG, but then I happened to come across this excerpt from one of Dennis O’Driscoll’s interviews with Heaney:

O’Driscoll: When you reopen Death of a Naturalist now, are you tempted to rewrite or revise or excise—or is it too late to think in those terms?

Heaney: As a matter of fact, I have done a bit of excising already. After Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published Field Work in America, they put out the four earlier books in a single volume, and if you look in the Death of a Naturalist part of that collection—Poems 1965-75—you’ll see I dropped seven of the poems. The Naturalist had been out for fourteen years at that stage and I felt free to exercise my judgment.

Well, if Seamus Heaney himself says these poems are no longer worth reading, I guess I won’t worry about it then.

So this will be a review of the revised edition of Death of a Naturalist.

* * * *

Lately, I’ve tended to gravitate more toward Heaney’s middle and later work: books like Field Work and Human Chain, for instance. But, reading this book for the first time, I was reminded of why I fell in love with Heaney’s poetry in the first place. His keen ear for rhythm and rhyme, his stunning imagery, his way of taking some simple object or memory and transforming it into something amazing: all of that was present from his very first book. There are the poems I already knew and loved, like “Blackberry-Picking,” “Mid-Term Break,” and “Personal Helicon,” but then there are also ones like, for instance, “Churning Day,” about a young Heaney and his siblings helping their mother make butter. I’ll admit that when I first read the title, I didn’t expect the poem itself to be terribly interesting. And yet, there’s something oddly mesmerizing about this poem. It works you into a sort of rhythm that keeps you going till the end. Naturally, being his first full-length collection, not every poem in this book is going to hit it out of the park. Even so, there are moments where the genius Heaney would become still comes through.

Another thing that I found really interesting in this book is the way in which Heaney’s language mimics a Northern Irish accent. Northern Irish accents, of course, are known for their emphasis on vowels and their deep, guttural sound. So, Heaney uses words that already contain deep vowel sounds in order to give a sense of the way people speak where he comes from. For example, in the poem “Digging,” words like “snug,” “gun,” “down,” “ground,” “sod,” and “bog” force the reader to speak in a lower tone of voice than he might usually use. It’s less distracting and contrived than eye dialect and works twice as well. Because while eye dialect can sometimes be effective, I prefer things like this, where you actually speak the sounds without even realizing what you’re doing at first. It makes it feel more natural, more like this poem and this kind of language are already a part of you.

Naturalist is also an ideal place to start for a person who’s new to Heaney’s work. For one thing, these poems tend to be more accessible than some of his later stuff, both in terms of style and content. Whereas some of Heaney’s poems can lean heavily on historical or cultural references that a lot of non-Irish people will not immediately recognize, the poems in Naturalist can be understood a little more readily. Of course, Heaney is more than worth whatever amount of time and effort it takes to understand him, but if you want to get an idea of what his style and voice are like before diving into his more ornate work, this is a good book to start with.

That’s all for me. Who else has read Death of a Naturalist? Which were your favorite poems in it? Let me know in the comments.

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