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‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘The Early Purges’

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  • Category: Death

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Both ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘The Early Purges’ are poems written by Seamus Heaney. Each begins by explaining a child’s enthusiasm for nature, and goes on to describe how this fascination is somehow changed. Both poems put across the idea that childhood is a time of innocence before the realities of life are properly understood. The poem ‘The Early Purges’ is set on a farm. It has a strong rhyme scheme where each stanza has three lines, the first rhyming with third every time.

The first line is “I was six when I first saw kittens drown” so we know that the poet is looking back to events of his childhood. This is a powerful opening line- a short, blunt sentence that mentions seeing death at such a young age. This one line has already created a very negative mood for the poem. Heaney uses techniques such as an oxymoron when describing the sound of the kittens in a bucket, “a frail metal sound”. This shows the child’s confusion.

Another example of an oxymoron which is used is when the bodies of the kittens are described as “glossy and dead”, showing that as a child, even though Heaney was distressed by the death of the kittens, he still found the sight appealing in some way. He uses the simile, “Like wet gloves” to describe the way the kittens “bobbed and shone” in the bucket of water. We also know that he is fascinated, because he hangs around the yard for days, “watching the three sogged remains”. We immediately form a negative opinion of Dan Taggart as soon as he is mentioned.

When drowning the kittens he calls them, “the scraggy wee shits” and this casual swearing makes him sound common and cruel. Not only does he brutally kill these creatures, but also he feels no guilt for his actions. We are told that he had, “pitched them… into a bucket”, and when they were dead he had, “sluiced them out on the dunghill”, showing us that his treatment of the kittens was extremely rough, that he treated them as objects which were a nuisance rather than living creatures with no care or respect. He tries to justify his actions by saying, “Sure, isn’t it better for them now? but he is immune and insensitive.

Murdering animals is something Dan Taggart does quite often. Heaney tells us how Dan kills a variety of animals in a list to emphasise what a habit it is, “Dan trapped big rats, snared rabbits, shot crows or… pulled old hen’s necks. ” The discourse of the poem is made up of four different voices or viewpoints: the recollections of Seamus Heaney as a child, the voice of Dan Taggart, the attitude of the townspeople when talking about “prevention of cruelty”, and the voice of Heaney now, when grown-up.

In the last two stanzas, Heaney as an adult expresses his current opinion on animals and how it has been altered since he was a child. He says that, “now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown I just shrug, ‘bloody pups'” echoing the voice of Dan Taggart when swearing to describe the particular animal. Just as Dan had, Heaney became immune and desensitised. Seeing events like this so often, it had become normal to him and living on a farm he would have been socialised to believe that killing an animal when it became a nuisance was right.

The title of the poem, ‘The Early Purges’ is clever because the word ‘purges’ means to get rid of something unwanted, so fits in well with the theme. Some of Heaney’s arguments for his point of view are plausible and realistic, even though they may sound quite harsh, such as his belief that it is wrong to “consider death unnatural”. When he comments on the townspeople talking about “prevention of cruelty” he is right to criticise them as they have a different way of life to him, here he makes them sound sophisticated yet almost pretentious.

However, his arguments are no longer considered valid as the last line of the poem ruins his credibility, “on well-run farms pests have to be kept down”. This shows that the animals are still thought of as disposable and do not need to be treated with care. ‘Death of a Naturalist’, also written by Seamus Heaney, is similar to ‘The Early Purges’ as it is told by the poet looking in hindsight to his childhood and it is also about how his attitude towards animals and nature was changed.

It begins by telling us his enthusiasm for nature as a child, being particularly fascinated by frogs and filling jars with frogspawn. We know that the flax-dam was a place he visited often as he tells us how “daily it sweltered in the punishing sun”; therefore it was probably a place he spent time at every day. From the way he describes the “bubbles gargling delicately”, he finds this place quite beautiful and enjoys going there. He must have closely observed all the different types of creatures there, as we are told them in a list, “bluebottles, … dragon-flies, spotted butterflies”.

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