The Early Purges and Digging by Seamus Heaney Analysis

The following academic paper highlights the up-to-date issues and questions of The Early Purges. This sample provides just some ideas on how this topic can be analyzed and discussed.

For the Diverse Cultures assignment, I have studied pieces by Seamus Heaney. These include ‘Digging’ and ‘Early Purges’. All the poems relate back to his young life in Limavady in the County of Derry, Northern Ireland. When Heaney was young, he wanted to follow in his fathers and grandfathers footsteps of being farmers.

Not just that, but being the eldest child in his family, he was expected to. Instead however, he turned his back on his family’s great tradition, and decided to become a writer instead.

As said, Heaney did want to become a farmer, this was expressed in the poem ‘Follower’, where he describes the way his father used to plough fields. The title itself shows there was once an ambition to follow. Furthermore, the pride that Heaney expresses in his family’s age-old tradition is articulated in the poem ‘Digging’: “By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man”. He goes on to describe that his grandfather was the finest turf-cutter on ‘Toner’s bog’.

His chosen option not to follow ‘rural convention’ created an entirely diverse world for Heaney. The fact that he went to a boarding school in a city (St. Columb’s college) would be enough of a culture shock. There were no kittens being drowned, as described in ‘Early Purges’, here.

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That type of thing was seen as inhumane, but to him, a simple farmers son, it was seen as necessary. That was the type of differentiation he experienced. As I stated earlier, Heaney’s poems all relate back to his younger, adolescent life.

“Drowning Kittens” And Other Adolescent Experiences

In the poem ‘Early purges’, he describes young kittens being drown on the farm, which was, and still is, quite commonplace in some rural areas of Ireland. Many see this as barbaric, but coming from an Irish, farming family myself, I can understand their reasons for doing this, which Heaney also later realised. His maturity is shown when he says using hindsight ” And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown, I just shrug, ‘ Bloody pups’ “. That poem was very sad, and I get a feeling of sadness from all his poems at some point.

For instance, even in a seemingly happy poem, ‘Blackberry picking’, a poem recalling the habitual picking of ripened and ‘inked up’ berries, the element of the (inevitable, with Heaney) sadness comes where the somewhat foolish children forget about the berries and leave them to rot in the byre, something which happened every year. There is no clearer depiction of an Irish, Catholic background than that found in ‘Half-term break’, where Heaney is taken from boarding school to find out his four-year-old brother is dead. The traditional ‘wake’ is described in this poem, something that is uniquely Irish.

He says “old men standing up to shake my hand and tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’”. I have a perfect picture of this in my head as I have been to a few wakes. I can even imagine the whispers circling the room in the colloquial, sharp, Derry accent. After reading through his poems that relate to farming, I get the feeling that he regretted not following the tradition which so many families in the area of rural Northern Ireland had. Although I cannot substantiate this statement with any apparent evidence I think he felt somewhat disloyal to his roots and to his father.

The poem ‘Digging’, Heaney takes time to intricately describe the way his father digging and cutting turf. The language that Heaney uses is extremely simple and colloquial. The majority of words are only one or two syllable and this makes the writing very accessible and uncomplicated. This is much the same as other pieces by Heaney. This sharp language is typical of the local tongue of Northern Ireland and Derry in particular. Having been to the region several times I cannot only imagine Heaney’s style of speaking, but I can picture a farmer ‘Nicking and slicing’ on the local bog.

As said, Heaney tries to carefully convey the picture and the skill of his father. He uses onomatopoeia’s to appeal to our auditory senses. He also carefully describes his father’s and his grandfather’s methods with great knowledge of what they were doing, thus showing his family’s tradition being passed down. The first and final sentences are basically the same, with the repetition of ‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests, snug as a gun’. Heaney then ends with ‘I’ll dig with it’. I think this means he will make his life out in a different way to his father, instead of using a spade; he will use a pen to make his way.

In the poem ‘The Early Purges’, Seamus Heaney tries to describe the habitual drowning of small kittens. Again, he tries to use sensory language to appeal more and give the reader a better personal depiction of events. For instance, when describing the kittens, just after their death he quite vividly says, ‘Like wet gloves they bobbed and shone tell he sluiced them out on the dunghill, glossy and dead’. He goes onto say ‘watching the three sogged remains turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung’. This is very graphic writing, and some could say, quite disturbing.

I personally think it adds to the atmosphere of the poem. I think that the up until the final two verses, Heaney’s outlook is that of a young boy, who doesn’t understand why something so cruel should happen. Heaney then shows his maturity by showing his understanding that the kittens, or ‘pests’ as they and other such animals were collectively known, basically had to be removed. The language used by Heaney also expresses the fact that little was thought of these so-called nuisances. He says they are ‘slung’ and Dan Taggart describes them as ‘scraggy wee shits’.

This shows the way people who owned farms perceived the killings, which was a stark contrast to those in urban communities. ‘Blackberry picking’ is a poem about Heaney blackberry picking in the late August summer. Once again, Heaney vividly describes what happens, appealing to our senses. He talks about berries ‘inking up’ and describes the different colours and there texture. The overall look of the poem is he and his ‘accomplices’ hunting their ‘treasure’. He makes references to the famous, murderous pirate, Bluebeard, who killed his wives and had his hands covered in their blood.

Our hands were peppered with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s’. The poem shows the innocence of childhood, where the centre of attention and prized possessions change so quickly. This is echoed by the fact that after so much anticipation and eagerness to find the berries, they simply forget about them and leave them to go stale, much to Heaney’s disappointment when he remembers about them and finds that they have started to rot and smell. Heaney did this for many years in a row as the final sentence says, ‘I always felt like crying.

It wasn’t fair that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not’. The final poem, which I am going to analyse, is called ‘Mid-term break’ which is a sad poem about the death of Seamus Heaney’s brother. I find that Heaney reveals very little about his brother (there is no mention of a name), the way he died (there is only a vague mention of a bumper, which might connote he was hit by a car) and his own, private emotions and how hard the death of his brother hit him.

I get the Heaney is locking this up deep inside him in this poem. The Irish wake is a big part of this poem and it shows how people react to a death, especially that of someone in their immediate family. For instance Heaney saw a no doubt different side to his father, ‘In the porch I met my father crying – he had always taken funerals in his stride’. The language used in this poem is quite descriptive, although not as much as the previous poems I covered. Heaney, however, vividly describes the room in which his brother is in, ‘Snowdrops and candles soothed the bedside’.

He goes on to say, ‘I saw him for the first time in six weeks. Paler now wearing a poppy bruise’. I think the poppy reference is to do with the fact that it relates to death, along with the earlier line ‘Counting bells knelling classes to a close’, where knell relates to death. As with most of Heaney’s poems, the final sentence leaves its mark and stands out more than other lines, ‘No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear. A four-foot box, a foot for every year’. This is the only line that rhymes in the entire poem, which I think, brings more emphasis to it.

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The Early Purges and Digging by Seamus Heaney Analysis. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

The Early Purges and Digging by Seamus Heaney Analysis
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