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Look again at An Advancement of Learning by Heaney and An August Midnight by Hardy. With reference to the ways each poet uses language, compare and contrast what the speakers in the poems say about reactions to nature. Which poem do you prefer?
An Advancement of Learning by Heaney and An August Midnight by Hardy are two poems that deal with reactions to nature in a realistic, non-idealised way. They deal with creatures that normally are overlooked in poetry: rats and insects. In examining the reactions to nature, a good place to start is the titles of the poems.
Starting with Heaney, the title An Advancement of Learning is a direct quote from Francis Bacon, a 17th century philosopher. This suggests that the poem will have an element of philosophical depth and that the reaction to nature will involve a revelation of some kind. Hardy’s title, An August Midnight, features a contrast between a word associated with light and another associated with darkness. This emphasises that the reactions to nature in the poem deal with the dichotomy between man and beast.
Furthermore, the imagery used by both poets is a key way to understand the reactions to nature. They both begin by setting the scene. An Advancement of Learning opens with the speaker walking alongside a river. He admits that he was, “(As always, deferring the bridge)” The use of parenthesis give it an almost confessional tone, conveying that he was ashamed of his fear. We also read that the swans were, “dirty-keeled,” which likens them to an old ship. This is a startling reaction to nature because it is so different to the way swans are normally presented as majestic creatures. This discord prepares the way for the rat.
Similarly, Hardy sets the scene in An August Midnight using phrases such as, “a waving blind,” which suggests that window was open and, “the beat of a clock from a distant floor.” Perhaps Hardy is trying to convey how time can warp our reactions to nature. After all, we experience more irrational fear at night than during the day.
Both poets then go on to speak of their initial horror when dealing with these creatures. Heaney uses a cacophony of negative imagery, such as, “Something slobbered, curtly, close.” His use of both sibilance and alliteration mimic the sounds made by the rat as it emerged. It also creates a sense of claustrophobia, telling us that this is an extremely negative reaction to nature. The speaker even uses an expletive – “God, another was nimbling” – to express his horror. Hardy describes the insects as, “winged, horned and spined.” This triad of demonic imagery reveals that he experiences a negative reaction very similar to Heaney’s.
The speakers then gradually reach a new understanding of these creatures. Heaney describes how he, “stared him out,” and finally, “crossed the bridge.” This is not just a physical crossing, but a spiritual one as well. He has finally gotten over his fear and his reaction to nature becomes much more positive. Hardy experiences a similar revelation, as he describes the insects as, “guests,” towards the culmination of his poem rather than nuisances.
Moving on, the tone of each poem is quite similar. They begin with tones of fear and dread as the speakers are forced to deal with elements of nature they are not comfortable with. The speaker in An Advancement of Learning mentions, “my throat sickened,” whereas in Hardy’s poems the speaker is not so frank about his emotions. However, we can tell from his description of the insects that he is repulsed by them. Towards the end of both the poems there is a tonal shift when the speakers realise that their initial reactions to nature were incorrect. The tone becomes calmer and more pensive, such as when Hardy uses the phrase, “I muse.” Hardy ends on a rather triumphant note, as he has managed to overcome his fear of the rat.
Moreover, the form and structure of the poems tell us more about the speakers’ reactions to nature. Both poems could be aptly described as dramatic monologues, especially An Advancement of Learning which mimics the style of classic poems that involved and epic battle. In terms of structure, An Advancement of Learning is written in uneven quatrains and uses an irregular rhyme scheme consisting of rhymes such as, “sky,” and, “I.” The structure of An August Midnight is similar in some aspects. It also has a rhyme scheme that is different for each stanza, with the first being ABABCC and the second is AABBCC. This reflects the irregularity of nature and how the speakers’ reactions to nature fluctuate throughout the poems.
A direct contrast between the two structures is that An August Midnight is written in iambic pentameter and has a structure that mimics a play. It consists of two ‘acts’ and uses dramatic language such as, “on this scene enter.” An Advancement of Learning does not have such a rigid structure. This could convey how the speaker in Heaney’s poem is reacting spontaneously to nature, whereas in Hardy’s poem the speaker is carefully considering his actions. Some have argued that Hardy is a formalist: his poems tend to be more scientific and methodical compared to Heaney’s looser, more experimental approach to poetry.
Finally, we must consider the context in which the poems were written. An Advancement of Learning deals with Heaney’s childhood in rural Ulster. Heaney describes the river as, “oil-skinned,” proving that he is not one to idealise his settings. This gives his poems an element of realism that readers can relate to, especially when it comes to his brutally honest reactions to nature. An August Midnight has an interesting context, as it could almost be considered a counter-argument for Darwinism. Hardy was an agnostic, and in the poem he wonders if humans really are superior to, “God’s humblest.” Another way of looking at it is that it features Hardy alone: Heaney’s poem deals with a direct and involved reaction to nature, whereas Hardy deals with a more observational reaction.
To conclude, both are poems that show how reactions to nature can change dramatically over a short period of time. Overall I prefer An Advancement of Learning, because it adds a dramatic and entertaining element to the speaker’s reactions to nature compared to Hardy’s more neutral approach.