The poet I will be focusing on in my essay is Seamus Heaney and his two poems I will be comparing are “Churning Day” and “An Advancement of learning”. Heaney was born into a farming family from the north of Ireland in 1939. His poetry mainly seems to handle different themes of love, death, generation, and memories. They all hold a strong dramatic sense. Many of Heaney’s early poems deal with his past childhood experiences and how he overcomes different situations as a young child. A theme he uses especially in “An Advancement of learning” is how different experiences affect us, also how just the smallest moment or thing said in our life can change the way we look on the world.
In “An Advancement of Learning” he reminisces back to a childhood fear that he confronted a Rat. In “Churning Day” a more pleasant situation but still equally memorable, also from his childhood, ‘butter making’. Which in his childhood was done on the farm using the farms own milk. In “Churning Day” he vividly tells us of the sights, sounds and smells of a typical churning day. In “An Advancement of Learning” he also uses different senses to help us imagine exactly how he felt at the time. The way he calls it “an advancement?” seems to suggest to us that there were plenty more moments in his childhood that helped him to learn something else about himself or the world.
Both poems I am looking at contrast on each other, “Churning Day” a pleasant, exciting memory and “An advancement of Learning” A fear confronted, but also exciting in a different way, memory. “Churning Days” subject matter and theme is about an exciting, happy day on a farm when they make butter from the churning of milk, the farm’s own milk. In this poem we see his memory as a child, excited on this special day. We can tell he enjoyed this day as he uses many detailed describing words for simple things such as, “A thick-crust, coarse-grained as limestone roughcast hardened gradually on top of the four crocks”. A crock is a large earthenware pot where they would store the milk. He carefully describes this visual scene so we can imagine what it really would have been like for him; he does this throughout his poem. We also know that a farm would use its own milk for churning day, this helps us realise that the child has watched the cows being milked and is probably marvelled at what is happening.
He says “After the hot brewery of gland, cud and udder”. So he has seen this happen and he describes the cow as a brewery, grass goes in then milk comes out. He then says “cool porous earthenware” straight after which contrasts with the “hot brewery” comment he made earlier. In “An ad. Of L.” the subject matter and theme is somewhat different it’s about Heaney as a young boy confronting the one thing he hates most in the world, rats. This is not such a day to look forward to nor as happy but it is still exciting in a scary way for the boy. We can see that this young boy is not too happy to meet the rat as he says, “A rat slimed out of the water and my throat sickened so quickly”. Here we see that he is not at all pleased to see the rat as he says it “slimed” out of the water which gives us a bad felling towards it and we imagine the rat slimy & slippery, which is an unpleasant thought. When he first hears the rat coming he says, “something slobbered curtly, close, smudging the silence”.
Here and in the last example we see Heaney use alliteration with the letters S and C for the arrival of the rats. He uses a lot of words beginning with these letters because they sound harsh on the ear, and it emphasises the feelings of the poet, mainly fear and disgust towards the rat. When we see he said, “smudging the silence” we see that it was very quiet and peaceful, but when the rat arrived it spoilt the silence and made itself noticed by the boy. The choices and arrangement of words in both poems are quite easy to see. In “Churning Day” the first part of the poem is about the preparation before the actual making of the butter. “Plumping kettles and the busy scrubber echoed daintily”, this means the kettles were boiling. The word “plumping” is used for onomatopoeia as the sound of water bubbling and boiling sounds like the word plumping. The second part of the poem is about the actual beginning of the making of the butter. “Four crocks, spilled their heavy lip of cream, their white insides, into the sterile churn”. Here we see Heaney describing the starting process, the churning.
The way Heaney specifically mentions that the crocks had white insides I think is so that the white creamy milk seems more a part of the crock, they blend in together. The last part of the poem is about the finished product the butter and the after effects that it leaves behind. For this Heaney describes the smells and sounds left in his memory. “The house would stink long after churning day”-we can see that the family would have had to put up with the smell for a long while after. He then says “acrid as a sulphur mine” which seems like the smell would have been quite sour and horrible to put up with probably as bad as gone off milk. We can tell that churning day was hard work for everyone envolved. “In the house we moved with gravid ease”, this shows that when they were working with the butter their bodies must have felt heavy and achy.
Now after they have done all the hard work they can finally feel relief from the exhaustion and heaviness after such a tiring experience. They must have felt a great sense of relief after working with the milk and they can finally say, it’s over. In the end he says, “our brains turned crystals full of clean deal churns”. This seems to say that their brains were like crystals they reflected what has happened, so they keep remembering sounds and smells which bring back memories that they can’t get rid of.
There is an interesting arrangement of words in “An Advancement of Learning” is at the beginning of the poem he is walking along “I took the embankment path (always deferring the bridge)”. As he is only a young child here he has been told to stay on the path but he eventually strays off it and meets his enemy the rats. From this quote the part in Parenthesis is like a comment or added detail. He does end up seeing the rats like I explained earlier then when he does he “turned down the path” but only to see that “another was nimbling up the far bank”. At this point he must have felt trapped, but he decides to stare the rat out. “I turned to stare with deliberate thrilled care” The boy is scared but I think he also does it on purpose to get a rush from scaring himself, it gave him a thrill of excitement. Heaney then goes on to say, “He clockworked aimlessly for a while”.
This gives the impression that the rat is turning round in circles maybe he too fears the boy and is looking for a way out. This constant turning seems as though the rat is deliberately ignoring eye contact with the boy who is staring at him. Then the rat “stopped back bunched and glistening” we can visualise this picture in our imagination the rats pose at this moment in time its back bunched like a cats does. It’s also “glistening” which relates back to the sliminess of the creature as it came out of the water. In the end the rat finally, “retreated up a pipe for sewage”.
The boy only looks after the rat for a small amount of time. “I stared a minute after him. Then I walked on and crossed the bridge”. The boy didn’t feel the need to celebrate his victory over the rat as he left soon after the rat had gone. In his own mind he knew he had won, but this can only be described as a “pyrrhic victory”. Along with that the boy has also lost his innocence. His innocence of being a young scared boy, he now would feel mature and probably brave as well. However the spot he enjoyed walking by will now appear less ‘magical’ to him.
Through both poems we see Heaney use a lot of different words and ways in his writing to create an image for us to imagine. In “An advancement of Learning” the first two stanzas we see Heaney create a dirty, unfriendly environment where the boy will see the rats. Firstly he says “the river nosed passed” which is an example of personification, as the river can’t actually “nose” past, as it is not alive. He then describes the river as “Pliable, oil-skinned, wearing a transfer of gables and sky”. This also shows personification, as the river can’t physically wear anything. This quote sets the scene really well, as we think of the river as polluted, oily, a shiny surface where the oil is.
Also we know that the river has a reflection of the sky but this would be a dirty, grimy reflection, the river appears unfriendly to us which helps with the rat’s entrance. In the second paragraph he says, ” I considered the dirty-keeled swans”. The boy has stopped to look at the swans. Swans are usually meant to be beautiful, graceful, white creatures but here we can see how the polluted river has made their bottoms dirty where they have been swimming in its oily waters. In both poems we see images like military images.
In “An advancement of Learning” the boy and the rat spend a couple of moments looking on at each other. He says, “He trained on me, I stared him out”. This image sounds like someone training on someone with a gun, this could be seen as a ‘war’ between the rat and the boy. A war to see who is the bravest. Also when he says that the rat retreated (“retreated up a pipe for sewage”) this could be seen as the rat retreating away from a battle which still relates to a military image.
Heaney was born in the around the time of the Second World War so this is maybe why he relates to it quite often as we see in “Churning day” as well. He calls the crocks “large pottery bombs, in the small pantry”. Bombs are seen as another military image like in the other poem also to help us understand the young childs excitement. He could be saying that the milk has a potential to change, to explode into butter. He creates an image of what it would have been like if we were in the pantry while the butter was being made. He uses onomatopoeia to help him describe this, when he is describing the way in which his mother starts to churn the milk and he says she “slugged and thumped for hours”. This describes the sounds that the milk may have made as it was being churned, and helps us to imagine ourselves being there and what we would have heard and seen.
In this poem we are looking through the eyes of a young child as he watches what is being done, as he never actually takes part in anything. We can tell this job must have been extremely hard work as it says, “Arms ached, Hands blistered”. He then goes on to say “Cheeks and clothes were splattered with flabby milk”. This shows that the milk must be nearly through with the churning as it is just beginning to come together and harden. It also shows that during the process of making butter your clothes will always end up getting messy as some always manages to splat everywhere. In the third stanza he talks about how the milk starts to go yellow and clump more together. “A yellow curd was weighting up the churned white”. This means that the milk is turning to butter and it goes to the bottom as it weights it up, he sets the image well with his use of colours.
Before the very end of the poem where they remember the smells and sights (which I have explained) of the day he tells us how they get the ready butter out of the churns. “They fished, dripping, in a wide tin strainer, heaped up like gilded gravel in a bowl” This means that they get the butter lumps out with a strainer. This must have looked like they were panning for gold as he says that the butter would have looked like “gold flecks”, it also would look like they were fishing for butter. The way in which the butter was said to heap up like “gilded gravel in a bowl” would be like the way gold would heap up as someone panned for it.
In both poems we see Heany use colours, sights, sounds, and feelings to set up a certain image and emotional feeling. He also relates to war or a military image in both, maybe because he was born around the time of the Second World War. Both poems are also to do with his memories of childhood, which show he must have considered this as an important time of his life.
Courtney from Study Moose
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