Opened Ground

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A review of one of the volumes: ‘Opened Ground', Death Of A Naturalist

Death of a Naturalist was published in 1966 and is the first collection of poems in “Opened Ground”. It consists of ten poems which are mainly based around Heaney's childhood coming from a rural area in Ireland. He tries to alter these memories and perfect them before he leaves them behind to return to the present. Heaney believes that to know our history we must “dig down to the roots”. The theme of death is present which needs to be addressed. It is his launching volume of work yet it is well crafted. Heaney describes the violence under the surface in the North. Heaney's observed memories are of rural Ireland are conveyed in his language of magnificence and sincerity. Through this volume Heaney finds a new direction through his maturing poetic vision. It is important to look at his themes, language, his roots and his influences when looking at Death of A Naturalist. The volume has such a broad range of poems which I will tackle mainly emphasising his transition from childhood to poet.

Patrick Kavanagh and Yeats are two of Heaney's influences. Kavanagh and Heaney are both experienced when it comes to rural life as they were brought up in the country side. They were peasants and had no choice but to learn this way. Whereas with Yeats he is a learned poet, he has control over what he learns, he grew up in Sligo and learned from his grandmother. In this respect Heaney has a lot more in common with Kavanagh and he cannot identify with Yeats as much as everything he experienced was from his roots.

The first poem of the volume is Digging. This poem is a poem about writing poetry. Here Heaney brings us right back to as far as he can remember as if it was yesterday, he allows us to look through this window into his past. It is about his father and his grandfather whom are digging into the ground, and we feel as if Heaney is isolated or separated away from his father as there is a glass pane between them. He is metamorphosis's the spade into the pen. The spade was the tool his father used to do dig up the land. This is the poem which Heaney says he had got his ‘feel into words'. The poem which is in the first person narrative has three time periods; it starts in the present then reflects to the past and then moves forward looking towards the future. It is written in a vivid and enlightening manor as a transition from childhood to poet in a celebratory tone. The poem has stanzas but it has no other structure of rhyming scheme which gives a sense of freedom. Heaney says ‘snug as a gun', which is a metaphor for his pen as a weapon which will protect him from criticism as his life is career is different to his fathers. Heaney starts in one place with this poem but by the end he has a solution. He juxtaposes his life, his fathers and grandfathers, from the time when he was younger on the farm however now he is a middle class poet and man. These two lines are important because he is metamorphosing the spade into the pen. The spade was the tool his father used to do manual work and for his own achievements but now Heaney achieves his through poetry. He knows by the end that he can continue to tell people about rural life and his ancestors love of land through his work.

‘Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it'.

Heaney's solution here is to use his pen as his spade; he will dig down to his roots. He may never have the lifestyle of a farmer but he will have one as a talented poet. This is the way Heaney's life has always been from the beginning of the poem his father is out digging up turf and Heaney is writing The third stanza looks back to the past before his father retired, he describes his love for farming as well as the physical endurance it requires. Then he goes back even further to his grandfather he says,

‘By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man'.

Heaney is trying to emphasize that farming was a tradition in his family as far back as he can remember. Now he is the one to turn away from his heritage and choose a different career path. His family are really proud to be farmers; they feel it is a sense of achievement for them. "curt cuts through living roots”. Heaney tries to show us the difficulties that he had whilst trying to break out of that circle of family heritage to become a writer. Heaney also uses onomatopoeia “squelch and slap”.He can also become a good writer and continue “continue going down and down for the good turf”. Digging once begun can become an excavation.

Death of a Naturalist is the second poem in the collection. Heaney uses many poetic techniques such as assonance, alliteration, imagery of touch and taste. This poem like digging in the way that they are about land, it is about ploughing, harvesting and how manual work is done. This poem has is about death, the death of innocence. This is not the only poem in this collection that is about death others are Midterm Break. This poem is idealized but becomes terrifying for Heaney as child as he ventures out on his own and he feels as if he is facing evil. It has a sickle nature as it plays out nightmarish scenes from the bible that is Exodus and the plague of frogs. He offers no salvation to give meaning to suffering and death which is similar to Midterm Break. It tells us about familiar domestic places. Similar to digging he begins in the present reflects to the past and looks towards the future. He tells us about his memories of harvesting and how inadequate he feels as he excavates with his pen rather than a spade. The transition from being a child takes place in the two stanzas both unrhymed iambic pentameter lines, the first representing the simplicity of childhood and the second as the initiation into becoming an adult, he knew it would clutch him and he would not be able to leave. He is resisting this processas he draws a line under birth and rebirth. It is important to note that the title of this poem was actually changed, it was originally called End Of A Naturalist. In the first stanza he tells us his memories so clearly from a child's perspective,

“The daddy frog was called a bullfrog And how he croaked and how the mammy frog”.

Heaney was influenced by William Wordsworth to write this poem the way it is as a romanticist. He is in no way celebrating nature he is simply telling us how it is. Nature is not abstracted it is a backdrop for Heaney; it is his use of symbolism. The adult looses his innocence as he now has learned experience, “I ducked through hedges”. We see him maturing into an adult as his voice breaks, the “coarse croaking”. He thought the dark was fearful, he uses physical metaphors to tell us that “frogs” were like “mud grenades” and “granary sacks” were like “great blind rats”. To Heaney going home to Derry to the farm is the same as digging down to the roots. This is to confront the dark, he always saw the farm as a place of darkness. The dark concealed Irish life and the violence hidden beneath the surface. Heaney's education and urbanization added to his ‘death' as a ‘naturalist' because he was always going between the North and England, also it helped him unthinking the earth. Heaney said,

“I began as a poet when my roots got crossed with my reading”.

Heaney secures his grip on his identity and his skills as a poet. He is convinced here of his perception and honesty. This poem is a response to rural Ireland, his youth and the understanding of his heritage. The noise he gets out of vowels is outstanding

“on shelves at school, and wait and watch until”.

Tony Curtis said that ‘the poems of fear are no more than an expression of inexperience, of apprenticeship in that tradition'. That is exactly what this poem is, he feels protected and safe as a child and feels a sense of uncertainty about being an adult. He is afraid because the change is inevitable.

Poem is the poem which he wrote for his wife Marie. It is about his inheritance of touch, sound and feeling. This is the poem which he perfects his old world to move forward with his life. He has a new world and a new life now consisting of teaching experience and his marriage and that is now where he will get his inspiration from. It attempts to iron out notches of his old world

Personal Helicon is another childhood experience poem but is a poem of accomplishment. He has now been through the process of self discovery and has adult experience of being a poet. He is now going to use poetry as his compass. As a child you are limited to what you can do, you cannot fully explore and that is the basis of this poem. He is now loud and confident about his childhood. He has lost contact with the “wells” he used to know as he is an adult now but he still has his memories and a voice to substitute for direct experiences. Helicon is a Greek mountain which was sacred to Apollo and muses, but he has his own personal mountain and inspiration which is external. He has a compulsion for self awareness. He wants to make more than just an arrangement of words. Heaney tells us that he has a future in poetry before he signs off.

Midterm break is a poem Heaney wrote in relation to the death of his brother Christopher, he was killed in a road accident only fours years of age. At the time Heaney was in boarding school. The tone is morbid as he uses words such as “knelling”. Heaney uses diction throughout the poem which makes it seem longer to read as if he is drawing out the process. The poem is overwhelming as Heaney never tells us how he truly feels, it lacks emotion, suffering and the pain he experienced. The only emotion that we can relate with him is repression which is one of the biggest factors when grieving. There appears to be an eerie silence to the poem even though we hear “bells”. Heaney's parents did not come to collect him he was driven home by his neighbors, “At two o'clock our neighbors drove me home” this was the first indication that he knew something had was wrong.

Heaney contrasts the way his parents were feeling, his mother was angry she “coughed out angry tearless sighs”, perhaps suppressing her true emotions for the sake of him. While his father is inconsolable as saw him in the porch. Heaney tells us how there were “snowdrops and candles” as a part of the ceremony for the funeral. It is not until the second last line of the poem that we discover that Christopher was killed by a car, “No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear”. The final line of the poem is most striking, it is not apart of a stanza it is the brutal reality of the situation, “A four foot box, a foot for every year”, this makes us feel as if Heaney has lost his innocence as a child as he is expected to face the hardest thing in the world, that is death.

Churning Day is another poem about Heaney's memories from childhood. It is about the process of making butter before there was any sort of technology to manufacture it. He is speaks about old customs and traditions which were apart of Derry‘s culture in the 1940's. Throughout the poem we feel as there is continuous movement and this can be associated with the constant stirring and churning of the butter. It has no rhyming scheme which is alike many poems from Death Of A Naturalist as it gives the sense of freedom from its free flow. This poem sticks out as many of Heaney's memories from his childhood in this collection are ones of exile, isolation and death. These are some of his happier memories on the farm. As a child he got enjoyment and excitement out of watching the butter formation process. We are told that women have many responsibilities once they marry and have children and that their lives can become stuck as there is a constant repetition day in and day out. This poem is similar to Blackberry Picking as Heaney once again as a child has fond memories of seeing the berries forming hard"knots" into sticky "clots." This poem seems to also have sexual metaphors as Heaney says “is flesh was sweet” and “the tongue and lust for picking”.


1. Curtis, T. (Ed.). (1982) “The Art of Seamus Heaney”. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press.

2. Foster, J.F. (1995) “The Achievement of Seamus Heaney”. Dublin: Lilliput

3. Corcoran, N. (1986) “A student's guide to Seamus Heaney”. London: Faber

4. Heaney, S. (2002) “Opened Ground poems 1966-1996 / Seamus Heaney”. London: Faber

5. Heaney, S. (2004) “Anything can happen : a poem and essay by Seamus Heaney with translations in support of Art for Amnesty / Seamus Heaney ; afterword Michael J. McCann”. Dublin: Townhouse

Heaney, S (1968) “Preoccupations: Selected Prose, Feeling into Words”