Seamus Heany – Death of a Naturalistand The Early Purges
The Early Purges is on the subject of a young boy learning about how kittens are drowned on a “well-run” farm. Dan Taggart appears to be an older boy or man, obviously experienced in these matters, and his attitude to the “scraggy wee shits” is transferred to the Heany towards the end of the poem, when he realises the “pests have to be kept down”. This is a new attitude to him – at the beginning of the poem, the sound they made was “frail”, their paws were “soft”, both potential terms of endearment, but these turn out to be (in his eyes) “false sentiments”, and he refers to puppies as “bloody pups”.
Living on a farm does seem to harden him, but these “false sentiments” would only seem false on a farm, where animals have to die to benefit humans. However, these sentiments are not false because when he feels them, he has not learn the ins and outs of farm life, so they are merely nai??ve. The thought that this is a “farm attitude” is confirmed by his reference to the town being a place “where they consider death unnatural”. The language Heany uses in The Early Purges is atmospheric.
When the kittens are “slung on the snout of the pump”, the “slinging” depersonalises them, showing that Heany no longer sees them as animals, but like objects to be repulsed by. This is echoed strongly by the description of them as “mealy and crisp” , which also adds a definite sense of revulsion, and when they “bob and shine” like “wet gloves”. The pups and kittens are “pitched” and “prodded” to their deaths, confirming that they are not considered pets as they would be in the town, but merely “pests”. The harsh “p” sound adds to this. Heany “sadly hung round the yard”.
This seems similar to the kittens “bobbing” in the bucket, and it shows the same mood, that it was hopeless for the kittens, that they were helpless, and Heany is also helpless; he cannot save the dead kittens. His fear is forgotten when the kittens are rotted, they no longer enter his mind until Dan starts to kill again, by trapping, shooting, snaring and pulling necks, when the fright returns, but he becomes desensitised and realises that it is necessary for some animals to be killed. The title refers to the fact that he first saw these “purges” early on in life, and that the kittens were purged when they were still young.
Purges” has a slight biblical ring to it, reminiscent of the plagues in Egypt and also the purging of sinners. There is also the thought that he is being purged of “false sentiments” at a early age. Death of A Naturalist is about a boy (Heany) who is spellbound by nature, and in particular, frogspawn. He likes to fill “jampots full” and watch it hatch and the “fattening dots” turn into “nimble-swimming tadpoles”. This fascination with nature is quite an innocent, even childish thing, and he brings the tadpoles to school where his teacher, Miss.
Walls, teaches him and the other children about how the frogspawn was brought about, but in a way that the children will understand, and that reflects Heany’s juvenile interest – she talks about “the daddy frog” and the “the mammy frog”, and never mentions the fertilisation. The second stanza provides a marked change in mood – suddenly, nature becomes threatening, and the way the “daddy frog” “croaked” in the first stanza suddenly becomes “a coarse croaking” and “their blunt heads fart”. The innocent tadpoles he watched have become “gross-bellied frogs”, “angry” creatures that “invaded the flax-dam” and made “obscene threats”.
The last line is particularly interesting. It says that if he “dipped” his “hand the spawn would clutch it”. This is a curious role reversal – earlier in the poem, he took the frogspawn and after he sees the frogs, his thought is that the spawn becomes vengeful, and wants to take him, almost to revenge the stolen spawn of the previous year. The language Heany uses is very effective in this poem – the sounds of “clotted” and “slobber” evoke a very accurate image of frogspawn, and the alliteration – “wait and watch”, “strong gauze of sound around the smell”, “the flax-dam festered” – adds to the aura of fascination that surrounds the poem.
The second stanza begins with the word “Then”, correctly implying that there has been a change. The onomatopoeic “slap and plop” of the frogs and their “blunt heads farting” combined with the assonance of “cocked”, “sods”, “hopped” add a sense of discomfort; the language and style of the second stanza combine to provide an effective and evocative mood of aggression and fear. The title implies that there is a death in the poem, but the boy does not die.
The Death of A Naturalist” says that a naturalist dies, and a naturalist does die – the boy no longer feels the same childlike enthralment, and so no longer investigates, and so is no longer a naturalist, though Heany himself remains. Both of these poems are on the subject of childhood experience and both present a boy’s change of mood, opinion or view on nature. They both narrate Heany’s “rude awakening” to the cold fact that nature is not always kind; that frogs can be intimidating to a small child, and sometimes nature has to be put to one side for the benefit of humans.
He begins both poems thinking that nature is benevolent, but as you progress through each of them, he becomes scared and, in The Early Purges, totally changes his opinion. The poems seem to be quite disturbing in this way – the sense of empathy is strong, and one can almost feel the boy’s fear, his shock. The poems are suffused with emotion; Heany is almost certainly referring to his own childhood, and he writes in such a way that when he reminisces, the reader can feel his memories and the emotions that accompany them.
When the mood changes, Heany makes it clear in both poems by beginning a stanza with “then” or “until”. Both poems use alliteration to add mood and atmosphere. Punctuation is used effectively. In The Early Purges: “Until I forgot them. But the fear came back”. The full stop seems to show that it is final, but then he comes back and says that the fear came back, showing that the emotions surrounding this experience were erratic and disrupted. In Death Of A Naturalist, the first stanza has very little punctuation, and this adds a subtle aspect of the boyish excitement that he feels in relation to nature.
In the second stanza, the sentences are much more broken, giving the impression that he is panicked by what he sees and hears. Both poems are very effective in this way. For me, living in a city with a pet cat, it is easy to be horrified by Heany’s change of attitude in The Early Purges, but I think that if I lived on a farm I would adopt the same position, if only to protect myself from the harsh reality that more animals means buying more food, and that means spending more money.
Country life is very different to city life, and I, having experienced both, can appreciate that to a certain extent. The poem is very poignant, and I like Heany’s use of language when describing the kittens, and, as I am a cat lover, it inspires quite deep feelings in me. The reference to his early feelings as “false sentiments” does not ring true to me. I think that there is no such thing as a false sentiment, there are merely different sentiments that can develop according to how one is brought up and what one experiences. Death Of A Naturalist does not appeal much to me.
The subject seems to be a little asinine, but that is judged only on my personal experience – when I was younger, all of nature fascinated me, especially frogs, and I loved the way they croaked and splatted, so I cannot see how that could intimidate or scare a child. His use of language is effective, though, and I like his description of the flax-dam; it is easy to visualise this hot, aromatic, noisy place where a portion of Heany’s childhood took place. It would seem that these two of Heany’s poems are similar in many ways. It shows that Heany had a childhood in the country, flooded with nature and tells how it affected his childhood.