Death of a Naturalist
Seamus Heaney's first collection of poems, published in 1966
The freshness and authenticity with which many of the poems made use of themes and imagery drawn from Heaney's rural upbringing were among the principal reasons for the book's enthusiastic critical reception. Poems like the title piece, ‘The Barn’, and ‘Churning Day’ display a Wordsworthian intensity of recollection in their sensuously detailed recreations of incidents in childhood. Elsewhere, the volume initiated Heaney's engagement with the larger communal past: the nineteenth-century Irish potato famine is harrowingly evoked in ‘For the Commander of the “Eliza”’ and ‘At a Potato Digging’; Ulster's troubled history is alluded to in ‘Docker’, a vignette of sectarian antagonism whose ‘Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again’ was to prove unhappily prophetic by the end of 1969. The volume also featured a distinctive group of love poems and firmly anticipated developments in Heaney's verse in ‘Digging’ and ‘Personal Helicon’; the former establishes physical penetration of the earth as an extensible metaphor for poetry, heralding the imaginative excavations of myth and history in his treatments of the peat bogs (see North); ‘Personal Helicon’ concludes the book by renouncing its preoccupation with childhood, the last lines indicating his subsequent concern with investigating personal identity in the statement ‘I rhyme | To see myself, to set the darkness echoing’.