Seamus Heaney: Poet Celebrating Cruelty to Animals

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.

I wish.

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.

About jeffreymasson

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15 Responses to Seamus Heaney: Poet Celebrating Cruelty to Animals

  1. giri says:

    Every ( well, most! ) English nursery rhyme needs to be re written or replaced with some new ones. I briefly worked as a kindergarten school teacher and it was hard for me to teach most of those without cringing. Each one of them is either horrific (Rock -a-bye baby, Pussy Cat Pussy cat where had you been) or sad (London bridge, Little Miss Muffet, Humpty Dumpty) or plain in appropriate for that age group (Georgie Porgie). I mean, these are just off the top of my head. The kind of terror in imagining these words, as I slowly unraveled the meanings, is still fresh from my own childhood. We indulge in such completely thoughtless actions with our children such as teach all these horrible rhymes, songs and feel all shocked when our teens resort to raping and killing etc on a whim!

    • Yes, of course, I agree. But what makes Heaney so awful, is that he is so contemporary, and he won the Nobel Prize, so he is very much looked up to!

      • giri says:

        It makes me wonder if Nobel Prize decisions are reversible .. if they could do it to Lance Armstrong and many others, especially in Sports .. this is far worse, given that it is our kids who are at receiving end!

    • Yes, I wondered too, but looking at all the commentaries, it is clear that he believed in the necessity of killing on farms. Other poems of his treat similar themes, and always he defends the farmer not the animals.

  2. Tina Clark says:

    I have always hated that poem, but I have tried hard to see it as irony, especially since the last line, if simply taken literally, sounds so pedestrian and un-poetic. Even so, the images are horrendous – not simply disturbing in an artistic sense, but horrid and disgusting. And if his sentiments can be taken at face value, it is truly disgusting.

  3. I’d never read the poem before. I read it just now. Like Tina, I have to believe that he’s being ironic. Otherwise, the poem is pretty lame, not on an ethical but on an artistic level.

    For some reason, even before I read the poem itself, your description of it immediately made me think of this poem by Ted Hughes, which seems to me to express a more humane reaction to the sight of murdered animals, obliquely expressed though it is:

    It’s an interesting subject, animalist and vegetarian poets. My awareness of English poetry is very shallow after Dylan Thomas and Robert Lowell, so maybe there are vegetarian poets around, maybe even a self-conscious school. I hope so. The only poet I know of who actually wrote any animalist poems is Thomas Hardy, who was also involved in the famous anti-vivisectionist Brown Dog Affair:

    His handful of animalist poems are not among his best, I feel, and the most explicit of them, “The Mongrel”, is in fact hilariously bad. The poem that made me fall in love with Hardy immediately (before I myself became vegetarian, actually), though it reflects his animalism, is not an animalist poem. It is one of his most famous:

    If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
    When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
    One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
    But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’

    Shelley was vegetarian, for a long time at least, and wrote a vegetarian manifesto:

    But as for specifically animalist passages in his poetry, I don’t remember any.

    Just now, searching for these references, I find to my amazement and delight that my first serious poet Alexander Pope (whose philosophical poetry, if not any specifically animalist argument, inspired me to undertake an animalist philosophical poem at age sixteen) was after all himself an animalist and vegetarian.

  4. I don’t think he is being ironic. Nor do I think Ted Hughes had such a great attitude towards animals either; they were, as is well known, close friends. I must say, I am now reading many of Seamus Heaney’s poems, and I fail to see why he won the Nobel Prize.

    • Well, I wasn’t thinking of Hughes the man (of whom I know little), just of this poem, which had a positive effect on me. Hughes loved the outdoors and loved to fish, I’ve read, but would throw the fish back out of pity. I know, that’s not good enough for us, but the things is that from an animalist point of view, no one is, and if we judge all poets (not to speak of all human beings) primarily from a vegan standpoint, we’re going to end up with very little poetry, or anything, that we can let ourselves enjoy. These days, when I get a spare moment at work, (the only time I have for English literature anymore, unfortunately), I’m rereading Walt Whitman, who is of course a wonderfully big and compassionate soul, also towards animals (the section of Song of Myself beginning “I think I could turn and live with the animals” is well known), so I was rather disappointed by one line which reveals that he ate beef. But what can we expect? I remember a story about Shelley: he was hanging out with a bunch of other poets including Keats, holding forth, and he criticized a poem of Wordsworth in which Wordsworth described a pile of caught fish thrashing on the shore, and Shelley condemned him for taking a purely aesthetic, non-ethical attitude to this sight; whereto the other poets said nothing, of course, none of them sharing Shelley’s animalism and vegetarianism, of course. More broadly, we all have favourite artists and thinkers who were complete assholes, even evil, in their personal lives. The point is banal, but you have to be able to separate the artist from the art if you want any art in your life, though in a case like this poem by Heaney, evil is so central to it that of course such a separation is very difficult.

  5. Barbara Filcon says:

    I totally concur with your assessment in sentiment and trajectory. It is outrageous that they celebrate such an entity who doesn’t learn anything but de-evolves into a senseless existentialist.
    Who dismisses compassion, let alone celebrating the beauty that these animals add to the world that nothing in the human world can do. When I was eight, and visited my first farmer’s market, I cried so badly seeing a skinned bunny hanging from a hook while my own bunnies were safe in bed at home, I still can’t get that vision out of my head when I think of farm animals. I still to this day cannot see how anyone could eat a bunny, a lamb, any baby that has such innocence and beauty. Even though I advocate veganism, the added horror of taking these children and killing them creates another layer of horror on top of the already abysmal nature of choosing flesh over plant, when there is a choice. This poet is nothing but a forwarding of the destruction of the beauty of the planet as we know it.

  6. marga riddle says:

    Hi Jeff, A beautiful write! and evokes memories of similar atrocities. Thank you for writing it.

    While humans taking over for God or Darwin for population control had its reasons, Lear’s line was still right. I feel the same way, though, about Rescue, with humane organizations condemning animals to life in cages and hidden deaths (which shocked and closed down the Kinship Conferences at the SF SPCA) and while not doing much about puppy mills. If you ever decide to take on the big guys, please let me know.

    In the meantime there have been several authors who found real service and long-lived sales in writing about writing and publishing. How about you, or you and Andy, joining Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in a book on nature and/or animal writing?

    Marga who knows so much but writes so little and knows that women who claim to know much don’t get much of a hearing

    just lost SheZam, a kitten, to a bad veterinarian call and bad drugs. grieving and angry

  7. Katy says:

    Posting here because it your most recent post but belongs under topic of dog emotions.

    Should be intuitively obvious but you know how experimental scientists are.

  8. Steven says:

    But it’s not untrue that “On well-run farms pests have to be kept down.” I don’t think he is exactly endorsing those values. If he were he would choose a phrase more obviously his own, as opposed to a phrase that sounds a lot like something he has heard said many times. But he’s clearly not letting us find a nice comfortable irony which would allow us to scorn the farmers. He’s forcing us to look at a set of values that we may well not be comfortable with, one that treats puppies and kittens not as sentimental objects but as animals. People munch up hamburgers made of animals that live and die in much worse conditions than those in Heaney’s poem without a thought, yet get teary eyed if they see a stray cat.

  9. I was one of the sensitive children raised on a ranch of which you refer to. I have seen unbelievable acts of violence inflicted on innocent, sentient, living beings. The only good that came of it is that it propelled me toward a constant awareness of my ability to choose emapthy, compassion, grace, mercy, protection and the lending of voice to ALL beings who cannot speak for themselves.

    Thank you for using your special gifts to make a profound difference in the minds, hearts and spirits of so many of the human species. Many Blessings!

    ~Gerean Pflug for “The Animal Spirits”

  10. I think he’s on the side of the kittens. The title makes me think this is a reference to Stalin and his attacks on Bolsheviks, and, by extension, about institutionalized brutality. It’s chilling but I think it’s deeply ironic. The poem shows the dangers of overly subtle or potentially dated satires–probably his intended readers in the 1960s knew the phrase “the early purges” but I didn’t until I looked it up trying to find out more about the poem. In context this poem is pro-animal and pro-child and pro-decency. It does however make me want to read another poem of his to banish the images–maybe The Singer’s House, with the seals outlined against the window and scanning everything.

  11. Louisa says:

    I have to teach poetry but would teach this one as Heaney mourning the loss of innocence (as in children tend to react to cruelty with horror and it can be argued that their reaction is the right one as they’re less tainted with adult cynicism etc). So perhaps the poem can be read as ironic (the pests need to be kept down line) and a lament for the fact that people bury their natural (and I would argue correct, natural, better) instincts in order to fit in and/or join mainstream society. The message then can be that it explains why some people are so cruel- I live in a lovely area where sadly very nasty people do revolting things to animals. The message of this poem may shame these people if interpreted correctly as it would show their mindless acceptance of what should be unacceptable and their desperate desire to fit in/become what their parents want rather than going with their better instincts? This argument at least I would hope portrays a more animal friendly message- I am always keen to open minds and shame people into behaving better- the majority of cruelty towards animals appears to come from people’s personal inadequacy (small man/big gun types), sadism (bullies who pick on the easiest target, cowards), ignorance (can be challenged), acceptance of such behaviour as ‘normal’ (addressed in this poem) etc. The root causes of cruelty are sadly numerous but could this poem prompt someone to question their acceptance of hideous practices and therefore help weaken the pro-cruelty argument?

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