Commentary: An Advancement of Learning by Seamus Heaney

In An Advancement from Learning by Seamus Heaney, he describes a retrospective childhood experience. The narrator compels himself to face a deep-seated and preposterous fear which he consequently conquers. He shares his terror and revulsion by implementing vivid and vibrant imagery presented in nine quatrains. The conquest of an irrational fear depicted in this poem is perhaps a metaphor for overcoming greater fears in life.

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As the title suggest, this poem is about An Advancement of Learning- facing and subsequently conquering sometimes strong and private fears. Heaney describes a lone stroll along a polluted, ‘oil-skinned’ river bank. The almost sombre introspective tone of the opening two stanzas rapidly changes into one of revolt and terror as a rat emerges from the river. In a moment of panic, the poet attempts to escape, only to find another on the far bank, which encouraged a deeper impact. The second rat provoked the author to question his response to and fear for these animals. He then ‘incredibly’ decides to courageously maintain his ground and face the rodent. Despite Heaney providing the reader with a vibrant image of the animal to reinforce his contempt, he almost battles the rat until he ‘stared him out’. Eventually, as if the narrator won the ongoing battle, the rat retreats into a sewage pipe. Heaney then advances his way and triumphantly crosses the bridge, as he conquered a fright which has bedevilled him since childhood.

An Advancement of Learning is written in nine quatrains consisting of short and sharp lines, which almost present the reader with a succession of flashing images. Heaney employs a loose and alternate rhyming scheme- stanzas one, three, six, eight and nine follow the pattern abcb, whereas stanzas two and four follow the abac pattern. Where the seventh stanza follows the abab pattern, Stanza five has the different but effective rhyming scheme abbc. The regularity of the rhythm in this stanza contributes to the reader’s sense of the poet’s rising self control. Heaney makes active use of enjambment and caesura to emphasise many of his emotions and sentiments. The astute use of enjambment from lines ten to sixteen increase the tempo and excitement of the poem, which in turn aid to convey the poet’s fright and aspiration to flee. Furthermore, the writer applies enjambment between one stanza and the next to allow his descriptions to flow smoothly, which appropriately reflects the fluidity of the river described. Interesting is that the verses reflect the writer’s gradual gaining of self control.

The main entity in the poem is the bridge as it symbolises the tree stages in the writer’s conquest of fear. At the sight of the first rat, the poet initially refuses to cross the bridge. Once faced with his ‘enemy’, he establishes a ‘dreaded Bridgehead’ which in military terms means to hold a defensive position. He is fearful but determined. Finally, as the poet defeats his foe and fear, he, with a vestige of triumph, ‘walked on and crossed the bridge.’ The bridge is mentioned at these three key stages of Heaney’s experience as well as structurally in the first, central and closing stanzas to emphasise the stages of overcoming his fear gradually.

Heaney’s most striking feature in terms of style and language are unmistakably his effective use of alliteration and sibilance, as well as the appealing use of lexis. The repetition of the sharp consonant sounds s and c, especially conspicuous in the third stanza, contribute to both the sickening nature of the rat and the writer’s feelings towards it. An example of words carefully chosen to enhance and reflect the meaning of the poem is ‘Insidiously listening’, which is despite its impact, neither alliteration nor assonance. The narrator also employs extraordinary and emotive vocabulary, such as ‘slimed’ and ‘nimbling’ to describe the rats, allowing the reader to accurately experience the fear and loathing which he suffered. Remarkable about this poem is that as the writer overcomes his revolt and fright, the description of the animal becomes more forgiving. Where at the beginning the rodents were Insidious, ‘slobbered’ and ‘slimed’ around, they are, less forbiddingly, observed as animals with ‘the raindrop eye’ and ‘the old snout’ towards the end. This indicates how the writer’s fear and terror disappears with the rat into the sewage pipe, and how he now views the rodent in its proper perspective.

An Advancement of Learning successfully conveyed the writer’s feelings and emotions while conquering a lifelong phobia. The use of enjambment and caesura as well as the alternating rhyming patterns, which reflected the increasing order of the situation, all contribute to the vibrant image the reader is provided with. Furthermore, the poet employed the motif of the bridge as a foundation for the poem’s structure while adding more dimension to the text by enforcing it as a symbol of the poet’s route to overcoming his deep-rooted fears.

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