Seamus Heaney was born on April 13th 1939. He lived on a fifty-acre farm called Mossbawn where his father worked. His father’s farm was in County Derry, Northern Ireland. Heaney was the eldest, he had two sisters and six brothers, when he was twelve he was awarded a scholarship at a catholic boarding school, Heaney left his farm and took up his post. The school was forty miles away from his home and subsequently saw very little of his family, despite his families absence Heaney claims that they were required for his poetry.
In the poems that I have studied, Heaney’s portrayal of his painful infant years and his dreadful recollections are showed in a variety of ways. Heaney’s memories and feelings are always used as a background to his poems. As he wrote these when he was an adult, he adds a more mature, destructive attitude, showing the comparison between a child’s innocent view and a more developed account. The first poem I studied was ‘The Early Purges’ which is a reflection of Heaney’s disturbing past. Heaney was exposed to, too much way to soon, consequently forcing him to grow up prematurely.
The title is very thought provoking by itself, ‘The Early Purges’ if something is ‘early’ it has no time to prove itself and is still young and free from blame. ‘Purges’ (verb) means to get rid of an unclean or impure element. ‘Purge’ (noun) means a cleansing. So the title ‘The Early Purges’ is an oxymoron as the meanings of the words contradict each other. ‘The Early Purges’ could translate to ‘The Young Traitors’. The poem starts: – ‘ I was six when I first saw kittens drown. ‘ Which introduces you straight to the poems subject.
This first gives the wrong implication to the reader as this tragedy is portrayed as an accident. Heaney only being six years old, was shown things that most adults would cringe at the thought off. In the following line it is explained that it was no accident. ‘ Dan Taggart pitched them, “the scraggy wee shits”‘ That name stuck in Heaney’s mind for years, plus the exact phrase, a quotation straight from the mouth of Dan Taggart. Heany being a lover of nature, he could not see why this murder was taking place. He failed to grasp the fact of why these innocent kittens had to be killed.
The word ‘pitched’ is to throw, fling or toss with no care to the animals. Also the word ‘pitch’ can mean to attack or assault. The shortage of care for an animal is extraordinary. These kittens were shown no dignity and Dan Taggart did not resent any of it. In Dan Taggart’s speech he uses the word ‘wee’, which implies a different dialogue. ‘Into a bucket’ Dan Taggart picked up anything that came to hand and used it, which happened to be a ‘bucket’; the word ‘bucket’ is very blunt and gives more impact. ‘A frail metal sound’ Using the word ‘frail’ emphasizes the helplessness of the kittens.
The contrast of definitions between ‘frail’ and ‘metal’ are antithetical, because metal is thought of, as a strong material so it being described as ‘frail’ doesn’t sound correct. The phrase demonstrates the fragility and minuscule size of the feline creatures. The second stanza describes the beginning of the execution. ‘Soft paws scarping like mad’ The word ‘soft’ again emphasizes the weakness of the feeble, powerless animals. ‘Scraping like mad’ It is as if their life depends on it, but of course the fate has already been decided, death.
‘But their tiny din as soon soused’ The phrase ‘tiny din’ is another oxymoron; this shows that the kittens are bellowing but the sound is inaudible. The word ‘soused’ has a double meaning, soused means to drench in water, which would physically make them unable to make a noise, and if you drown out a sound it can no longer be herd. Those two lines flow into each other like water flows (enjaberment). Again there is no respect towards the kittens ‘ slung onto the snout’ the use of alliteration in this verse (repeated S’s) gives the sound effect of the water splashing.
The next stanza proves that Dan Taggart has convinced himself he has done nothing wrong. He asks the question to Heaney to try and persuade him to think that it is right, also to reassure himself. Heaney remembered that exact quote and memorized those words of absolute cruelty. ‘Like wet gloves’ This phrase is very expressive, ‘wet gloves’ are unwanted objects as you use them to keep warm and if they were wet they would be discarded. Some gloves are fleece, comparing with the fur of the kittens. The five-finger indentations of a glove may resemble the limbs of a kitten. ‘They bobbed and shone till he sluiced’
A simile is used comparing them to wet gloves, and the words ‘glossy’ and ‘bobbed’ create a watery, wet effect. Most striking of all is the oxymoron ‘glossy and dead’. As glossy coat is usually seen as a sign of animal health, but as we no they are very far from health. The next stanza carries on from where the last one left, and is largely about death and the child’s reaction to it. ‘Suddenly frightened, for days I sadly hung’ ‘Suddenly’ indicates that the consequences of the actions hit young Heaney all at once, then after it stayed in his mind for ‘days’ after becoming his burden.
Round the yard, watching the three sogged remains’ Heaney could do nothing else apart from stand and look at the dead kittens. The wet effect again comes into play, with the word ‘sogged’ being used. ‘Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung’ More imagery is used in the form of a simile. The simile helps the reader think of other mealy and crisp items, (most of them won’t be very pleasant). ‘Until I forgot them. But the fear came back When Dan trapped big rats, snared rabbits, shot crows Or, with a sickening tug, pulled old hens’ necks.
The fifth stanza just describes the other murders of Dan Taggart. Which continues to damage Heaney further, with more innocent victims being slaughtered. ‘Still, living displaces false sentiments And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown I just shrug, ‘bloody pups’. It makes sense:’ I think the only reason that Heaney has began to think like this is because Dan Taggart has poisoned his mind making him respond in this way.
“Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town’ It’s as if the people in the town never knew this sort of killing ever happened and now they want to prevent it in someway. Where they consider death unnatural, But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down. ‘ This confirms my previous statement. So to have a good farm you have to make that sacrifice. I think poem is about how we lose innocence once under the influence of a threat. The second poem I studied was ‘Mid-Term Break’. Mid-Term Break is an incredibly sad poem, which is about the death of Heaney’s infant brother (Christopher) and how people (including himself) reacted to this. Poem’s title suggests a holiday but this “break” is not for pleasant reasons.
For most of the poem Heaney writes of people’s unnatural reactions, but at the end he is able to grieve honestly. ‘I sat all morning in the college sick bay Counting bells knelling classes to a close At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home’ The stanza begins with the ‘morning’ in line one, but it is two o’clock in line three, showing that hours have passed in waiting. The reader asks himself the question ‘why does his neighbors drive him home? ‘ there could be a number of reasons.
The next stanza explains why his parents were not up to retrieving him from school. In the porch I met my father crying He had always taken funerals in his stride And Big Jim evens saying it was a hard blow, The second stanza begins with the image of Heaney’s father ‘crying’. Heaney’s father appears to be a strong man of few words, so having him crying causes a powerful emotion in the reader. If Heaney is told be big Jim Evens that ‘it was a hard blow’ must mean something big has happened.
Heaney skillfully takes the reader with him as he enters the house through the porch as we meet his father; ‘Big Jim Evans’; the baby in its pram; he old men (some of which he probably dint know, because he was away at boarding school) gathered in the room; and finally Heaney’s mother coughing out ‘angry tearless sighs’, which show that she was hiding her true emotions. I think that by holding Seamus’s hand she mainly gives her self-comfort rather than offering Seamus comfort. ‘At ten o clock the ambulance arrived with the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses. ‘ This gives a confusing image as an ambulance is thought of taking way people to get better, rather than bring back dead people.
The nurses have tried to conceal the wounds of the boy and make him look more presentable to his family. The next stanza takes place the following day, when Heaney goes to see his brother. ‘Next morning I went up into the room. ‘ The word ‘the’ implies that the guests referred to that specific room as ‘The Room’ the previous night. ‘Snowdrops and candles soothed the bedside’ The candles and snowdrops were used to try and improve the atmosphere of the room. We also learn in this stanza that Heaney hadn’t seen his brother for six weeks having been “away at school”, which cocludes that he went to a boarding school.
The words “paler now”, hang at the end of the stanza on line 18, causing a sad pause before the sentence continues and describes how little changed in appearance from when the boy was alive and dead, his apperance was exactly how Heaney remembers him, but wearing a ‘poppy rose’ on his forehead, Heaney tries to configure how such a small wound can take a life. ‘He lay in the our foot box as in his cot’ This is Heaney remembering him as a baby, sleeping in his cot, and in any second he will awake and want to play with Seamus, that is what he has to take in to account whilst he stares at his brother.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear’ Because the bumper hit him with such force the brother was flung so far and did not bare any ‘gaudy scars’. The following line is written with so much passion and emotion, summing up the poem brilliantly. ‘A four foot box, a foot for every year’ As this poem was written in one single sitting, Seamus Heaney was able to channel emotions in to poem, instead of spreading it out. This way the poem gives more penetration to the readers mind. The third poem I studied is Limbo. The story in this poem makes the reader ask as many questions’ as it answers.
Heany writes this poem ehich reaches the readers heart. ‘Fishermen at Ballyshannon Netted an infant last night’ Once again like in many of Heaneys poems the first stanza introduce the subject (‘Netted an Infant’) and setting (‘Ballyshannon’). The fisherman must have been distraught once they saw the baby in their nets. ‘Along with the salmon’ This explains what the fisherman where fishing for, but it is an unpleasant way of finding a body among a load of fish. ‘An illegitimate spawning’ This shows that the baby was not supposed to be their and one of the most extraordinary things you catch when you go fishing.
A small one thrown back to the waters’ ‘A small one’ obviously describes the baby, ‘ thrown back to the waters’ can mean two things, either it means like a small fish you throw it back because it is too small or because when it was in its mothers womb it was in her waters. ‘But I am sure as she stood in the shallows Ducking him tenderly’ These lines show enjamberment and an oxymoron most of Heaneys poems show these elements repeatedly. The enjamberment is the three lines flowing into each other, and the oxymoron is ‘Ducking him tenderly’, how can you drown somebody tenderly? Could the ‘she’ be his mother?
If so what has happened to the mother who makes such an unspeakably horrible choice to drown her newborn son? And what religion can be so stern as to teach that illegitimacy is so unacceptable that a mother would choose to destroy her own child? ‘Till the frozen knobs of her wrists Were dead as gravel’ ‘frozen knobs’ I interoperated as the mothers hands, ‘dead as gravel’ as in the sense that those hands killed somebody so they were dead, or because gravel is life less and doesn’t move. What becomes of the mother who with freezing hands quietly drowns him? ‘He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open. ‘ This confirms that he was a burden to the young mother, ‘a minnow’ again this shows that he was very small, delicate and innocent. ‘She waded in under The sign of her cross. ‘ This translates to she walked deeper because of her religion, but what religion can force somebody to do such a thing’she would be made an outcast if she kept it, so she resorted to this.
‘He was hauled in with the fish. ‘ I think that ‘hauled’ is not the most appropriate word to use, as it give the impression that the baby was thrown, when I think it slowly floated away from the mothers arms. Now limbo will be’ ‘Limbo’ being the edge of hell and far from heaven. The following stanza tells the reader that such a devastating action was carried out, that not even Jesus Christ , could not bring that young boys soul to heaven, as that action was done because of the mothers religion. ‘Even Christ’s palms, unhealed, Smart and cannot fish there,’ Even Christ Himself feels his wounds and cannot draw near the drowning sight as though he never intended such an act to be performed under the sign of His cross.
All the way through the poem references were made to fishing, as fishermen found the baby. E. g. ‘Netted’, ‘small one thrown back’, ‘He was a minnow’. After reading this poem it would be easy to be against the Catholic Church for its stern and dispassionate rejection of unbaptized infants from a permanent place in Heaven, but I think society in general must share the blame for its lack of support. It is too easy to pass judgment upon women particularly who find themselves in untenable positions, giving birth to children outside of a stable and supportive marriage.
These are the very souls who most need the help of society. In society’s defense, I would like to think we are becoming more accepting of children “born out of wedlock”, but nonetheless even today most single mothers have a hard life ahead of them. The last poem I studied on pain and suffering was Bye-Child. Bye-Child tells the story of a feral child found shut up in a henhouse, the ultimate symbol of ignorance, isolation and alienation. He is fed on scraps thrown through a trapdoor ‘morning and evening’. This image is an extreme dramatization of Irish poverty and deprivation.
The child lives for the arrival of the scraps, his only link with the unnamed ‘she’ (his mother? ) and for the sight of the lamplight in the window, the symbol of comfort and companionship from which he is inexplicably excluded. His uncomprehending patience is compared to that of a dog; he is ‘kennelled and faithful’. Despite the misery and neglect of his parents (‘their’ implies his mother has companionship), there is no resentment in his acceptance of his situation. He loves the light. The poem is written like a newspaper report because I believe that Heaney found the basis for this poem in a newspaper.