In the second segment of my three-part series in honour of the late poet Seamus Heaney’s passing, I will analyse another of his poems that deals with death (a discussion of the first, A Dog Was Crying in Wicklow Also, can be found here). The Early Purges was published in Heaney’s first anthology, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. Semi-autobiographical, the piece conveys one of Heaney’s revelations upon maturity, after a childhood spent on his family’s farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland – namely, that death, specifically in animals, is natural, even and perhaps especially if it is premature. Almost lyrical in its organisation and rhyme scheme, ‘The Early Purges’ illustrates in a combination of iambic pentameter and blank verse a growing boy’s numerous encounters with death, and his evolving perspective thereof.
The first stanza is voiced by a six-year-old boy, tacitly watching an older friend, ‘Dan Taggart’, throw a few nascent felines into an empty bucket, dubbing them ‘scraggy wee shits’ and quickly pumping water atop them. The narrator is sensitive to the suffering of the kittens – he recounts how their “soft paws” frantically sought escape, making a ‘tiny din’, soon silenced by their ultimate concession to death. Heaney somewhat perversely uses animal imagery to describe the mouth of the water pump – ‘snout’ – thereby carnally linking the victims with the mechanism of their agony; by the snout of the pump their own snouts were forever subdued. This method reinforces the underlying dictate of death as natural, belonging, and even necessary, to the world of men and beasts. It is in fact a boon: ‘“Isn’t it better for them now?” said Dan’, implying that the killing of the kittens was not cruel, but benevolent, granting them sweet respite from unspoken horrors on the farm. The young boy does not yet understand morality, as he is ‘frightened’, but less so over the concept of death or the perpetration thereof, than the strange transmogrification of the kittens. Very much alive at first, ‘frail’ and benign, the kittens become sick objects upon their demise, ‘wet gloves’ mindlessly bobbing on the surface of the water. The bodies are placed on the dunghill, ‘glossy and dead’; the boy is both entranced and disgusted, drawn in by the sheen of their still-lush fur while repulsed by their untimely nonexistence.
The boy feels a certain sense of responsibility, ‘for days I sadly hung/ round the yard’ where the kittens were laid, empathising with them. With the first line, ‘for days I sadly hung’ the boy connotes death by hanging, an execution. He studies the corpses, watching as they lose their defined form and eventually erode into the dunghill upon which they were unceremoniously tossed, former kittens ‘turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung’. Thus camouflaged, the kittens are no longer (formerly) living beings but insensate dung, which does not warrant attention. Soon, the narrator sheds ‘the fear’ and ‘for[gets]’, until Dan finds another target for his bloodlust, ‘[trapping] big rats, [snaring] rabbits, [shooting] crows’. The boy is still affected by violence and shocked at the emotional distance Dan assumes when killing animals – the latter carries out his duties systematically, while the narrator finds his actions ‘sickening’. Stray cats, rats, rabbits, crows – these are nuisances, serving as hindrances to the effective operation of the farm. Dan knows this, and in his role as farmhand wastes no sympathy for beings that will impede the success of the harvest and endanger his and his family’s livelihood.
Though initially sensitive to the act of inducing death, the boy, with time, soon learns of its necessity: ‘living displaces false sentiments’, he affirms, the rural routine proving incongruent with excessive magnanimity. His ‘sentiments’ over and toward the kittens and other assorted animals, namely guilt and fear, were misguided, ‘false’. He should not feel that way, as death in these instances ‘makes sense’, and the drowning of ‘shrill pups’ should evoke no more than a ‘shrug’. The same narrator who sulked for days following the death of kittens now, having been exposed to the elimination of certain animals, takes death in stride, asserting that ‘pests have to be kept down’ to ensure the functioning of a ‘well-run farm’. His tone mixes resignation and pride, ‘have to be’ denotes a supra-human, unwritten rule that he cannot help but follow if he wants to maintain the superior state of his farm. He has become desensitised to death, ‘in town…they consider death unnatural’, but farmers know that ‘prevention of cruelty’ is a hollow phrase: death is needed on a farm, where time moves cyclically. Urban life is linear, from birth to death, while the countryside progresses in cycles. From barren earth to crops and back again, death is no more than a temporary phase before the spring. Death causes the betterment of life, as a “purge” invokes terrible thoughts of heedless extermination, a final act (or solution), but in Heaney’s world these ‘purges’ are by no means definitive. The pests must be ‘kept down’, implying that they routinely rise up – death is a maintenance operation, essential to the operation of a prosperous farm. It is not cruel, but vital.
The Early Purges therefore underscores the importance of death in the progression of life, how it is not an interruption or an obstacle to life but rather conducive to it, an enabling factor. It should not be feared – once frightened of death, Heaney later realised the foolishness of fearing something natural and inevitable. On his deathbed, he attempted to impart this knowledge to his wife – ‘doli temeris’, he wrote. ‘Do not be afraid.’