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Discuss Seamus Heaney’s Poems

Seamus Heaney’s poems explore the loss of childhood and the cruel awakening into the world of adulthood. Discuss. Seamus Heaney has been described as ‘the best Irish poet since Yeats.’ He was born on April 13th, 1939 and was the eldest of nine children to Margret and Patrick Heaney at the family farm in Mossbawn. He studied English at Queen’s University in Belfast, also in Saint Joseph’s College in Belfast to become a teacher. After many years of writing, “Death of a Naturalist” was published in 1966. It contains poems symbolic of the death of childhood, specifically Heaney’s childhood as a curious young “naturalist” eager to learn about nature.

Heaney’s poems reveal his thoughts of his childhood and his family. His poems are filled with the images of death but are also firmly rooted in childhood. His poems of transition explore the journey from childhood into the adult world. “Blackberry Picking” is a reflection of adulthood and childhood. Heaney tries to tell us that we should enjoy childhood because adulthood is disappointing. He gives the message to have low expectations. Therefore when we grow up, we will not be let down by the adult world. The poem is written from an adult perspective, although it has many childlike phrases in it. It is about Heaney’s summer ventures with his friends during which they would collect blackberries in “milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots”. It is an elegy, mourning the spiritual death of childhood.

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The poem is also an extended metaphor. The beginning is about childhood, seeing the world as a child. However, there are associations made with adulthood throughout the first stanza eg: “like thickened wine.” This implies that adulthood is always near, that it is creeping up on the poet. The second stanza is a metaphor for the adult world and its disappointments. It is a reflection of adulthood and Heaney tells us, “Once off the bush The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.” He is trying to express to us that when we become adults we lose our innocence. Heaney conveys the message of how unsatisfactory the adult life is in the final line, “Each year I hoped they would keep, knew they would not.”

Heaney informs us that whilst we have high hopes for the future as we continue, we become more realistic and understand that it does get any better. In contemplation, “Blackberry Picking” is a complicated poem in terms of language. It isn’t easy to understand what the true meaning is at first glance. However, after careful observation, it is possible to see the hidden meaning. Once understood, the language is prominent and vivid. “Like thickened wine: summers blood was in it.” This simile is a powerful image of the blackberries because it is comparing them to wine, which makes the reader think of thick, red wine oozing from the blackberry. “Summers blood ” is also very influential. It tells us that the red heat of the sun was present in the blackberries.

Another excellent example is “big dark blobs Like a plate of eyes,” which gives an image to paint a picture from. “With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeards” this too produces a superb picture of the children’s hands covered in thick red juice. This image represents Bluebeard: a man who murdered his wives and is identifiable by the blood on his hands. The mood in stanza one is joyful and also playful: “We trekked and picked,” “Where briars scratched and wet grass-stained our boots.” A childlike picture is created by the phrase “Among others red, green hard as a knot.”

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This vibrant and vivid description is like a child’s description. However, the use of the word “lust” demonstrates that adulthood is continuously sneaking up on childhood because lust is not a childlike feeling. The mood slowly changes because of words and phrases suggestive of adult emotions. Towards the end of the first stanza, the mood becomes gluttonous and ominous. The use of similes, such as “like a plate of eyes,” suggests that adulthood is watching you. In stanza two, the mood is sombre and gloomy. There is no immediate change in mood from stanza one to stanza two because the ending of stanza one is also quite oppressive and hostile.

It says “we hoarded,” which is antithetical to “picked,” as we are told in the first stanza. This is more of a selfish and greedy attitude. Next, Heaney writes, “A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.” This image is dull and gloomy and further contrasts the colours in stanza one. It tells us that adulthood is grey and mundane. In this poem, the tone is gradually modified. Initially hopeful and apprehensive, it slowly changes to sadness, and there is also anger in the tone of voice: “It wasn’t fair.” By the last line, the tone suggests disappointment. This is just like the message conveyed in the poem: in childhood, we are hopeful for the future, but by the time it comes to adulthood, we already know it will not be that great. Finally, when we are adults, we are dissatisfied and downhearted by the reality we face.

In my opinion, “Blackberry Picking” is very effective in terms of language and tone. It delivers an important message. Although it is difficult to understand at first, it is an amazingly descriptive poem and demonstrates the harsh reality of adult life. Similar to “Blackberry Picking,” “Death of a Naturalist” is also about childhood and adulthood. For Heaney, “Death of a Naturalist” is the death of innocence and childhood. It is the birth of a poet and the beginning of adulthood. Like “Blackberry Picking,” it is an extended metaphor. The first stanza represents childhood and the second stanza represents adulthood.

The poem is written from an adult’s perspective, a reflection on a childhood experience, like “Blackberry Picking.” There are infantile descriptions in the poems: “the mammy frog laid hundreds of little eggs.” Here we see simplicity and innocence, just like how a child would describe the incident. Heaney brings purity to the poem through these descriptions. It is practical and we see how innocent and pleasant life is as a child. Alliteration is used efficaciously to create a sense of monotony: “On shelves at school, and wait and watch.” This repetitiveness is quite comforting to the reader.

In stanza two, however, alliteration is noted by the constant C, which is hoarse and forceful, just like the verse itself. Heaney changes what is a simple and a natural event into something sinister and intimidating. He uses onomatopoeia to make child-like, and also war-like, ideas much more realistic. “Bubbles gargled” is both friendly and pure. Conversely, “slap and plop” is uncouth and pugnacious. In stanza two, he says “pulsed like sails.” This simile illustrates to us what the frogs are like to him. Heaney’s use of language in this poem is a little clearer than in “Blackberry Picking.” It is not easy to grasp, nevertheless exceptionally effective, even at first glance.

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In the opening stanza, Heaney uses simple and child-like imagery: “Bubbles gargled delicately.” This is soft and pleasant. The words “warm thick slobber” are also very innocuous. They are comforting and affectionate. But a change is noticeable in stanza two; the imagery is now war-like. Words like “Invaded,” “cocked,” “mud grenades,” “vengeance” are suggestive of war and weaponry. Even so, they are effective in showing the fears and emotions in the young boy’s mind. The descriptions show the threat of adulthood; it is significant to Heaney, as it is continuously mentioned.

Heaney uses an informal tone in this poem, witnessed by his use of childlike phrases: “daddy frog” also, “mammy frog.” This comfortable tone personalizes the incident to Heaney. The mood in stanza one is playful but not necessarily inviting. In this stanza, there are intrusions of adulthood, like “flax had rotted there, weighted down.” This is almost a claustrophobic description. There is frequent mentioning of rotting: “festered,” “rotted,” suggesting childhood decay. In stanza two, the child-like atmosphere disappears, and it is now daunting and violent, emphasized by the war-like imagery. We see the loss of innocence here. Both mood and tone are menacing and unwelcoming.

Heaney does this to warn us against adulthood. He wants us to be on guard and not like him who “sickened, turned and ran.” In the second stanza, it is as if Heaney believed the frogs were conspiring against him. This feeling is made because of Heaney’s insecurity. His fear of adulthood is triggered off here and is represented by the frogs. The poem has uneven lines and no particular rhythm or rhyming pattern. Heaney does this because he wants us to pay attention to the message conveyed. Frequently lines roll into one another. This gives the effect of time running on continuously. There are two lengthy stanzas in this poem, almost like a story.

In “Blackberry Picking,” we are informed that we should have low expectations of adulthood, so we will not be disappointed. However, the message in “Death of a Naturalist” is not so simple. Heaney firstly makes us aware of the harsh existence of adulthood and how disturbing it was for him. By the knowledge of this experience, we are warned against adulthood. We acknowledge that adulthood is daunting and a foreboding event. “The Barn” is also set during Heaney’s childhood. This event takes place in a barn, most likely at the family farm, Mossbawn. As an adult, the dark and dusty barn now reminds the poet of the hardships in adulthood. It is a metaphor for adulthood: a place of danger and doubts.

It demonstrates Heaney’s fear of the adult world. He recalls the frightening images he saw as a child. He let his imagination run away as a child. Here he sees the barn as engulfing and intimidating. In this poem, Heaney describes everything through the eyes of a child, but the mind of a poet. For example, to a child the floor is grey, but to the experienced poetic mind it is “mouse-grey.” This symbolizes the fullness of adulthood. It is very plain and tedious. This description reminds us of “a rat-grey fungus” in “Blackberry Picking.” It also suggests that adulthood is recurring.

Other examples of poetic language can be seen throughout the poem: “The musty dark hoarded an armoury of farmyard implements.” Although Heaney was familiar with these simple farmyard tools, (“harness, plough socks,”) he makes them seem much more sinister, especially since they were actually used as implements of war in Irish history. He creates an ominous atmosphere by using words like “hoarded” and “armoury.” The word “hoarded” was also used in “Blackberry Picking,” “we hoarded the fresh berries.” This word conveys the idea of greed and selfishness. We also see the recurring nature of maturity again, like the descriptions “mouse-grey” and “rat-grey.”

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Heaney uses similes such as “like the grit of ivory,” and “solid as cement,” both suggesting very inflexible and rough textures. They also suggest bleakness and chill, whereas the simile “like an oven” suggests warmth, demonstrating ambiguity. Another example of his uncertainty is “you felt cobwebs clogging up your lungs / And scuttled fast into the sunlit yard.” Here it appears to be claustrophobic, but all too soon it appears to be fine: “sunlit yard.” There is always the feeling of enclosure in this poem. No escape, no way out. The only other signs of life are the bats: dark and sinister creatures.

“No windows, just two narrow shafts,” “the dark gulfed like a roof space.” These are examples of the claustrophobia of the barn. How sheltered and remote it is from any sign of happiness. It appears that a barn is a place far from optimism and pleasure. It is shady and murky. All this is a metaphor for adult life. We are alone in adulthood. It is dangerous and dark. Adulthood is boring and monotonous too. There is a sinister tone to the poem. It is almost chilling. What seems to be a normal place is now frightening and creepy. It transforms a normal farmyard barn into an adult apparition, full of doom and insecurity. It is distorted into a horrifying place, we are frightened of it and its possessions. This is similar to “Death of a Naturalist” where a natural event is twisted into a violent and uncontrollably fearsome incident.

This poem suggests that we must protect ourselves (“armoury”) from other people and the dangers we face as adults. We face being taken over by the force of greed and power. As children we have protection from adults, but who will shelter us in adulthood? No-one, we must fend for ourselves, the security we once had as children quickly evaporates leaving us isolated without hope or comfort. “Mouse-grey,” “solid as cement” and “chilly concrete” are all suggestive of the discomfort ahead. Overall the poem describes the negative side to adultery, monotonous, boring, defensive, greedy and engulfing. Heaney drags out all of the aspects we loathe most about being an adult.

Then he places them in an intimidating setting, through a child’s perspective and allows us to interpret the experience for ourselves. Heaney presents a generally pessimistic, almost fatalistic view of adult life. His poems illustrate dangers and isolation vivid in adult life, in contrast to the dependence we rely on in childhood. They explain to us the dramatic change from innocence and purity as infants to corruption and voracity in adulthood. The poems are used to convey young Heaney’s insecurities and uncertainties, coupled with a faint progression through the conclusion of each of the poems: something has been learned or achieved. What more can one hope for from these significant childhood incidences?

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