The Early Purges
The title uses an epithet appropriate to totalitarian politics where ‘purges’ ruthlessly removed elements deemed ‘undesirable’ by those in power.
Heaney applies it to the cruel realities of farm-yard life as he experienced them as a six-year-old with the contingent mental anxiety it caused him. Experience has brought albeit reluctant acceptance of a different reality. Of course ultimately Heaney will leave farming behind; end of ethical dilemma.
Dan Taggart was the uncompromising agent of totalitarian policy, his rôle to despatch ‘pests, here drown kittens. Insulting his victims beforehand as ‘scraggy wee shits’ went somehow hand-in-hand with his acts.
In contrast the young watcher’s naturally compassionate nature records only their vulnerability, their impotence and the ease with which their life is snuffed out: frail metal sound,/ Soft paws scraping like mad, a tiny din … soon soused.
Dan, the ideologue, claims the kittens are better off dead; the boy, however, preoccupied with the drowning animals, has clear misgivings: Like wet sponges, they bobbed and shone till he sluiced/ Them out on the dunghill, glossy and dead.
The days that followed witnessed a fearful curiosity in the boy who returns to watch the process of decay as sogged remains/ Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung. He might have forgotten were it not for the repeated acts of the farmyard executioner that would bring a return of fear and conscience.
Times have changed (now) and acceptance, too: farming experience (living) dictates that what he might once have regarded as inhumanity is now seen as false sentiments; because unregimented reproduction leaves too many mouths to feed, the speaker has accepted that shrill pups are prodded to drown.
As if to remove any vestiges of reluctance (Still/ I just shrug) the speaker mimics his early ‘mentor’ (‘Bloody pups’) and reassures himself that It makes sense.
Those early ethical scruples are identical to the liberal, uncomprehending urban attitudes he has met since coming to the city as an undergraduate: ‘Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town. Heaney comes down firmly on the side of country practice: on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.
- 7 triplets of largely 10-syllable lines; a rhyme pattern is based on 1st and 3rd lines of each stanza;
- Dan’s power to kill and discard is brought out in strong participles: pitched … slung … sluiced; the animals differ in their death throes: cats frail … soft; dogs shrill;
- an example of dynamics: the syntax of stanza 3 throws the key word to the end, suggesting a measured delivery of the final emphatic dead;
- alliteration: velar plosive[t] and sibilants [s/ [ʃ] in tandem: pitched/scraggy/ shits; sibilant [s] in number: soft paws/ scraping/ soused/ slung/ snout;
- alternation of voiced velar plosive [g] with palatal nasal [ŋ] echoes the tolling of a funeral bell: dunghill/ glossy/ hung/ sogged/ dung;
- assonant effects: [ʌ] pump/ pumped; [ɒ] bobbed and shone; bobbed/ sogged; [ʌ] tugged/ pulled;
- neologism: sog (Heaney creates a verb and its past participle from a dialect word meaning ‘swamp’);
- oxymoron (the juxtaposition of contradictory or incongruous terms, understood as a paradox): tiny din; simile: like wet gloves with its evocation of the colour and viscous texture of moisture in leather;
- the kittens are frail: soused ( a porte-manteau of ‘swamped’ and ‘dowsed); the puppies, stronger, have to be prodded to drown;
- Irish speaker give-away: Sure isn’t it better …
- use of Direct speech gives mouth to the propaganda ultimately adopted as acceptable reality by the mature speaker;
- Pests: no difference drawn between wild and domestic; all non-productive creatures qualify for extermination at the hands of the uncompromising farm-yard executioner;
- the poem makes it clear the realities of farming involve ‘heartless’ acts;
- a youngster steels himself to the real world;
- Michael Parker’s Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet 65 describes events as a fall from innocence into experience;
- disturbingly a 6-year-old learns the lessons of successful farm-management by collaborating with cruelty;
- a child’s initiation into fear (ibid p.66);
- MP suggests ironic allusions to post- WWII Stalinist purges (ibid p.67);
- final line is ‘flat’ (ibid p.67);
- Rather as Heaney will not take sides in the Troubles, the boy is never an active contributor to cruelty.