the early purges by seamus heaney

The poem ‘The Early Purges’ by Seamus Heaney is the poet’s adult reflection on his childhood experience on the farm. The poet describes in first person witnessing kittens being drowned. Through this, the development of his maturity, changing attitudes are perceived. The poem is full of the emotions experienced by Heaney when witnessing the deaths of the pests. The contrast of the poet’s thinking is also conveyed throughout the poem. One central feature of the poem is the poet’s use of imagery to highlight the theme of animal cruelty and the poet’s attitude towards this.

When Heaney describes the kittens’ ‘soft paws scraping’ it highlights the idea of the kittens being innocent by using the word ‘soft’. This in particular makes the kittens sound harmless, while ‘scraping’ shows the reader that they are seen as innocent and desperate. This emphasizes the poet’s empathy towards the kittens. In particular, Heaney juxtaposes the ‘soft’ with ‘soused’ describing what has been done to the kittens. This allows a comparison between the two words and by doing this the poet has made the drowning of the kittens seem horrifying and cruel.

Moreover, Heaney uses an oxymoron to describe the kittens as ‘glossy and dead’; here this image shows the clear contrast between the kittens being shiny as if new but dead. The contrast of the two words is absurd and this highlights the idea of the cruelty towards the poor kittens as well as it shows the stress on the fact that they are actually dead. Furthermore, the style of this poem reflects the changing attitudes of Heaney towards the slaughter of these animals. When the pests are objectified as ‘old summer dung’, it shows that Heaney has stopped thinking of them as ‘soft’ kittens but simply as nothing more than a pest.

This helps highlight the changing attitudes of the poet as it was clear that before he showed great sympathy towards these animals and now he thinks of them as ‘dung’. This also shows that Heaney has matured from being a child to a man where he has developed his thoughts and come to terms with the way of life on his farm. This is also shown when he uses onomatopoeia to describe the pups as ‘shrill’. Here, the word shrill is seen as almost annoying and no sympathy is shown from the poet contrasting with his previous feelings towards the kittens. The main theme of the poem is all about how we change when we grow up.

There is direct contrast between the first and last lines: ‘I was six when I first saw kittens drown’ and the last line, ‘On well run farms pests have to be kept down’. The first line conveys a sad boy standing unhappily watching helpless kittens drown, whereas the last line is about the same person but by the time he has grown up he is saying almost the exact opposite. The poem opens up with a very short, simple and matter-of-fact line, ‘I was six when I first saw kittens drown’. The fact that the line is in 1st person creates a personal touch to the poem, and the past tense tells the reader that the poem will be about memories.

The next line continues the idea of memories, “Dan Taggart pitched them, ‘the scraggy wee shits’. This line is a very good image of a boy’s memory. Certain phrases are picked out and remembered which is very common of memories from the young. To conclude, ‘The Early Purges’ is a poem primarily showing the changing attitudes of the poet’s time on the farm, specifically when he witness the drowning of pests. Imagery and structure are particularly used to highlight the contrast between these attitudes. Imagery also ensures that the reader feels sympathy towards the ‘pests’ towards the start of the poem.

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