Counterpoint to Walden Pond

Poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature was born in County Derry, 30 miles northeast of Belfast. The eldest of nine children, he became a teacher and a writer who now lectures at Harvard.

Heaney earns much praise from fellow writers. American poet Robert Lowell called him the most important Irish poet since Yeats, easily recognized as the most popular Irish poet writing today. His most recent contribution to literature has been his translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf.

Echoes of Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, George Manly Hopkins, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Hardy are said to be heard in his work. For an umbrella impression of his work, one critic has mentioned that Heaney writes predominately about things that lie deep in the earth. So far I can’t argue against him.

Try the following:

Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

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. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the damn gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats; Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting;
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

On the subject of tadpoles, allow a personal anecdote.

One spring when my daughter Molly was three, she scooped from the slough that ran behind her grandmother’s house a coffee can full of frogspawn, bringing the watery nursery into the house to sit on the breakfast bar.

Just as Seamus Heaney did, we watched the dots turn to tadpoles that grew back legs, adding size and function to the little comma bodies.

Finally, biology being what it is, we rose one morning to a kitchen filled with miniature frogs jumping from counter to window sill to floor. Very carefully my mother and I cupped the bouncing adolescents in our hands, returned them to the bowl, the bowl to the pond. Nature belongs outside.

Seamus Heaney’s poem captures that season in childhood when if a child is very lucky, he can become enthralled with frogspawn. Molly had been fascinated by the growing tadpoles; most of us are drawn to the young, the beginning of things.

But Seamus Heaney and I agree; big old frogs become slime kings. Their slaps and plops are obscene threats, poised mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. What vengeance would frogs inflict upon little girls and their mothers who kidnap their babies for a biology experiment?

Nor is the home of the frogs in Heaney’s poem Walden Pond. The flax dam holding back the water in the town stream is described as a barrier which festered in the heart of the townland, the flax rotting in the punishing sun. Bluebottle flies buzz above the smell. Dragon-flies, butterflies, flit over the thick slobber of frogspawn, growing in the clotted water along the banks.

I suppose one could make a great fuss over the symbolism of the festering source of life, the figures of the young frogs turned gross bellied, but I think I will deny my English teacher roots and simply say I like the humor in the poem’s title, the sharpness of detail to describe one spring in a boy’s life and the sharp decline in enthusiasm for one venture into nature. It makes an enjoyable counterbalance to all those nature poets who would find inspiration in anything outdoors.

Diane McCormick

2 thoughts on “Counterpoint to Walden Pond

  1. Hi, I was just reading your analysis of ‘The Ministry of Fear’, where you state that the ‘hobnailed boots’ are clearly a reference to Nazi Germany. I was wondering if you could explain your understanding of this? Could it possibly be that, in fact, the hobnailed boots (or tackety boots as they are known in Scotland), could be a reference to his father’s and other family members’ occupation and his internal struggle between working the land and writing poetry? Thanks

    • Yes, I think one of the early commenters made that point fairly clearly. Not being Irish, I’d only heard of the German “hob-nailed” boots, especially due to the authoritarian overtones.

What do you think?