I know it is not nice to speak badly of the dead. I realize that everyone, literally everyone, believes Seamus Heaney was not only the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, but also one of the kindest, most friendly, most unpretentious, gregarious, sweet men in all of Ireland.
Perhaps his most famous poem, one that every schoolchild in England and Ireland learns by heart, is called The Early Purges, from his collection “Death of a Naturalist.” Google it and read it. It is only a few lines. Its fame is assured, we are told.
What am I missing here? I find it appalling. Nasty. Ugly thoughts expressed in unforgettable images I wish I could get out of my head. The gist: when Heaney was six, living on his father’s farm, he watched an older boy drown kittens, calling them “scraggy wee shits.” The sight traumatized him. Of course. He was a small boy filled, like so many other children, with empathy for other small creatures like himself. He is frightened too. While he does not spell it out, why could not somebody call him a little shit, and want to kill him? It happens.
In time, he forgets the fear. But then he sees the same person kill with pleasure rats, rabbits, crows, and pull off the necks of old hens. The fear comes back. Again unspoken is: If them, why not me? So far so good. Many naturally sensitive children on farms are horrified by the violence visited on animals that they see daily. He learns a valuable lesson. But no.
The end of the pome is not what one might expect, namely that “I learned, then, to love all helpless creatures, human or otherwise.” Quite the opposite: I learned that my compassion was a “false sentiment.” So Heaney explains that later, when puppies were drowned in his presence, he shrugs, and mimics his elders by calling them nothing but “bloody pups.”
Wait, you say. Surely Heaney is commenting on how he had become deaf to suffering. He is not celebrating it, he is mourning the passing.
The last lines abolish any such false hope. I paraphrase: Those of you who live in towns can speak of cruelty, because you think it is unnatural to die. (But these animals did not die a natural death, they were killed for no reason. But Heaney insists there was a good reason: “On well-run farms pests have to be kept down.”
Pests? Dogs, cats, rats, chickens? Kept down, that is, murdered. That is what a well-run farm is, after all.
Is this the poem we want our young people to learn by heart? Many will wish, like me, they could unlearn it.