The Subject of Death to essay

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A deep and horrifying malaise hangs over
the images described here. To be sure, it seems that there is something
more than just the changing of the seasons which affects the speaker and
which afflicts his perspective so dramatically. He tells that "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." (Heaney, 1)
This is a moment of ominous dread. The optimistic cycle where death
had given way to life in the first stanza-a decidedly naturalist embrace of
the wonder that is life-is now described as a threatening and mysterious
force somewhat beyond the comprehension or experience of the young speaker.
The language becomes decidedly more aggressive and far bleaker, describing
'gross-bellied frogs,' with a 'slap and plop' like 'obscene threats.' He
describes them as 'poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.'
In all of this, there is dually a visual description of nature as producing
something horrific and literally sickening to behold, as well as a
presentation of nature as something dangerous and weaponized against him.
It is here that, in attempting to deal with the primary question of
the research investigation, we must return to the issue of Heaney's real
life brother. This is the catalyzing force driving the change in the
poet's feelings toward nature, bringing him face to face with its awesome
power to give life and to take it away. The nature which could be so
gentle and generous in breathing experience into his little brother had
been dangerous and terrible in taking him away at only four years of age.
For Heaney, the dramatic experience described by "Death of a Naturalist" is
one that suggests the poet's love for nature has been deprived by some
impossible to endure terror. The final sentence of the poem is both
compelling to this end and revealing of the poet's psyche only in its
attention to the natural responses around him. Here, fear dominates him.
Before running in abject horror from the dam which, only in the days prior
as described in the first stanza, had been a playground to him, he provides
an appropriately childlike interpretation of the experience. He observes
that "the great slime kings / Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
/ That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it." (Heaney)
This last is a rather important sentiment to parse in trying to
determine if the naturalist in Heaney had ever truly died. The description
offers firstly a indication that the speaker sees himself as somehow guilty
and deserving of the dangerous and threats which seem to be prevented to
him. Certainly, this may be the poet's depiction of a child's mind in its
own inherent guilt and unwanted self-consciousness, or it may be an
indication that the speaker is truly aware of some wrong that he is
committed and for which he will suffer great anxiety. More importantly
though is the very clear idea that leaves us with a hollow and unique sort
of revulsion. The idea that to dip his hand in the dark murkiness of the
decaying swamp water would be to be 'clutched' by something horrible and
invisible is quite revealing of a new and unwanted interpretation of
nature. Through his eyes, we see this as a force with the capacity to be
vengeful, awful and fully without mercy.
The violent accident that took his brother's life and the narrative
experience of enduring this tragedy, which Heaney offers us unflinchingly,
provides Heaney with an experience that alters his understanding of nature.
Certainly it doesn't diminish his appreciation for it, or at least his
attention to detail there within. But it does manifest a greater sense of
foreboding of what it means to be a man at the mercy of nature's
irresistible force. There is demonstrated a greater respect for that which
is fully implied by naturalism. The vulnerability and helpless that we see
in the boy sitting in his college's infirmary is the very same as the dread
and uncertainty in the boy at the flax-dam, and most significantly, the
very same as the sense of smallness felt to the astronaut peering out of a
window at his planet. The invocation of nature as something both beautiful
and perilous is entitled "The Death of a Naturalist" but might more aptly
be referred to as his revelation, or perhaps the death of his innocence.
The title is not erroneous per se, but at least misleading in a retrospect
on Heaney's career. If it is not fair even to suggest that the title is
erroneous, perhaps the sentiment is simply stated indirectly.
The death of Heaney's brother is tantamount to the death of a
sensibility in him. Perhaps the sensibility that in the human experience,
suffering and tragedy bring individuals closer to an awareness of their
vulnerability and their ultimately mortality. With his brother's passing,
Heaney came to a new understanding of nature which would set to revelation
the idea that the naturalist must in his deference to nature, accept his
own relative impotence. If anything, this appreciation only intensifies
the naturalist in Heaney, with the output to follow bespeaking an even
greater emphasis on the degree to which nature brings together all things
in this cycle of life and death. In fact, this does bring some epiphany to
our discussion. In the sentiment which refers to the 'death of a
naturalist,' we may more abstractly read this as exploration of 'death' to
a naturalist. Namely, much of Heaney's preoccupation with nature becomes
manifested in his exploration of the inherently natural subject of death.
Perhaps this is most stunningly connoted in a work that both
explicitly deals with his brother's passing and the ebb and flow of
nature's cycle. In "St. Kevin and the Blackbird," Heaney offers a rather
Buddhist principle in an imagined return of his brother to the natural
phenomenological process. Describing a 'cell' which the reader might
presume as the same space as the 4 foot coffin, he tells of "St. Kevin"
whose "One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff / As a crossbeam, when a
blackbird lands / And lays in it and settles down to nest." (Heaney) The
poem goes on to intersperse uncertainty as to how Kevin is or is not
experiencing the tactile sensations of the life blossoming in his dead
palm. The poem states rather explicitly the naturalist proposition that
"Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked / Neat head and
claws and, finding himself linked / Into the network of eternal life."
This invocation of the network and the idea of eternal life recounts
the theme first described by "Death of a Naturalist" where the transition
between death and life leaves blurry the line between the two. The poet
who comes to understand that these two things are intertwined and
interdependent is the same who by the composition of "St. Kevin" no longer
speaks of the cycle with the guilt or dread driven by personal psyche in
the aforementioned poem. Instead, there is only the uncertainty and
inquisitiveness prompted by the abyssal nature of death with respect to the
experience of life. The contrast could not be made more clear than it in
St. Kevin, where the poet says of the subject, "now he must how his hand /
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks / Until the young are
hatched and fledged and flown." (Heaney)
This is a remarkable bit of imagery in which we may find some
redemption. The moment of 'death' described in the two stanzas of marked
difference in "Death of a Naturalist" takes on a different emotional
proportion in this work. Instead here it promotes a greater appreciation
of the completeness and continuity between life and death, necessarily
coexistent as they are. As Heaney's later career would advance, it would
do so under the auspices of what we learn were increasingly vocal political
dispositions. Reasserting his Irish identity and using this as a beacon
for objection to British political occupation and aggression, Heaney would
prove himself the ultimate naturalist. Channeling his commitment to the
principles of natural law into a political perspective which objected to
the violations of human rights that he felt were clear, Heaney would
undeniably be a naturalist of immensely dedicated proportions even to
present date. (Wikipedia, 1) Furthermore, it seems clear by his work that
at no point would he ever have wished to deny this identity or philosophy.

We are therefore reinforced in the argument that Heaney's invocation
of the 'death' of a naturalist was an emotional response to the trauma of
his brother's untimely demise and all which this experience revealed about
nature to him. Of all considerations touched upon in the exploration of
this idea, perhaps…[continue]

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