Themes in ‘Digging’ and ‘An Advancement of Learning’

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In Digging Heaney explores his childhood and his relationship with his family by describing how he would look down at his Father out of his window, and how he looks at him and absorbs and admires the great skills his Father possesses.

‘The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.’

The word nestled implies his Fathers natural ability to rest his foot on the spade.

The poem also tells about how his Father had been Digging for twenty years, this was probably his whole lifetime at work. Heaney’s relationship with his family is also shown in the sixth stanza where he talks about his Grandfather and how he had helped him when he was at a young age. The skills Heaney observed in his Father are also shown in the seventh stanza showing Heaney’s relationship with his Family as a strong one as he worked with them and watched them on his farm.

‘nicking and slicing neatly… for the good turf’

The poem Digging puts across the idea that Heaney helped on the farm in his childhood, whereas An Advancement of Learning changes this picture by showing him as a lonely boy with strong fears and that Heaney used to walk in the woods and by the river to help himself come to terms with his Fears.

The countryside is put across very differently in the two poems. In ‘Digging’ the countryside is put across as a relaxing peaceful area where farmers nicked and sliced sod for fuel whilst having the presence of the smell of potato mould in the air – a smell you would expect in the countryside. In An Advancement of Learning the countryside is put across as a much more unpleasant place to be in. It is described as having railings, and ‘dirty-keeled swans’ which you would expect to find in a city, as well as the presence of a rat coming out from the water – not a stereotypical countryside scene. There is also a feeling of darkness, and dampness in the surrounding land.

In An Advancement of Learning one of the preoccupations is Heaney’s growing up and confronting challenges and change. The challenges in this poem are his fears and the poem is about Heaney trying to conquer these fears by crossing the river, and passing the rat that represents his fears.

‘Slimed out the water and

My throat sickened so quickly that

I turned down the path in cold sweat’

He finally changes and manages to conquer his fears represented by the metaphor of Heaney staring the rat out

‘I stared him out’

In the eighth and ninth stanzas you can tell that Heaney has grown older and matured and forgotten his old childish behaviour.

‘Forgetting how I used to panic

When his grey brothers scraped and fed’

In Digging Heaney has also grown up and matured and faced a challenge, however in Digging it is a more significant challenge deciding what he will do with his life, whether he will follow in the footsteps of the generations before him or dig into his past writing poetry with his pen. In the fourth, fifth and sixth stanzas Heaney sees himself as a weak, small boy in the fields with his relations whereas by the last stanza he has grown up matures and decide what he will do with his life.

Heaney is aware of nature in both his poems, he recognises the turf – good and bad. He also appreciates the flowers and potatoes in the wide, outstretched crop fields. In A Advancement of Learning he recognises the nature in the meandering river that ‘nosed past’ however in An Advancement of Learning the nature is much grimmer with the ‘dirty-keeled swans’

Heaney uses vivid and evocative description in the language he uses in both of the poems to ensure you can imagine how it was when Heaney was there. In Digging an example would be the descriptions in the fourth stanza, which Heaney uses to show his fathers great skill working on the land. Also the same effect is used when describing the work of his grand father in the seventh stanza,

‘Nicking and Slicing neatly, heaving sods’

Heaney uses this language in Digging to emphasise how skilful and long working his Father and Grandfather were, this is effective because you can imagine them skill fully cutting neat accurate amounts of turf and placing it down to take home for the fire.

A similar language is used in the first two stanzas of An Advancement of Learning in Heaney’s description of the river and the surrounding land. The words used give the river an old feel and also emphasise the solitariness of where Heaney is,

‘Hunched over the railing,

Well away from the road now’

Heaney’s vivid language is also used in describing the rat in the sixth and seventh stanzas this is very effective as you can gradually see the whole picture of the rat in your mind, I think Heaney does this to form some irony, for when he gets to the seventh stanza and he stares out the small creature, this is ironic because before the rat is described as a horrible ugly beast,

Ears plastered down on his knobbled skull…The tapered tail that followed him,

The raindrop eye, the old snout’

The ideas behind both of the poems written by Heaney are ordered in a very much similar regular cyclic pattern, Both poems start with a problem, or something that Heaney must do, decide whether to did with his pen (explore his life as a child) or with his hands (on the farm digging potatoes) in Digging and his fear represented by the rat and him as the river in An Advancement of Learning.

In Digging the central part of the poem is used by Heaney actually looking out of the window and remembering the generations before him and looking at the goods and bads, then at the end of the poem deciding that the life on the farm was not a life for him and that he wanted to explore his life in writing poetry about his childhood. Whereas in an Advancement of Learning the poem builds up with his fear and hatred of the rat, and Heaney convincing himself how afraid he is of the rat until the end of the poem where Heaney realises that the rat is small and weak and that he can stare it out. I think that these structures are very effective at getting across the points in the poem and give the poems a strong meaning, and this gives the effect that the poems are story like. Read “Night of the scorpion” poem questions and answers

Heaney uses the senses such as taste, touch and sound to bring out the places where he is in the poems, examples in Digging would be,

‘a clean rasping sound’ used to ensure you can imagine the sound of the spade sinking into the ground.

‘the cold smell of potato mould’ gives an exact definition of the smells Heaney smelt in the fields as a child. This gives the reader a sense of the environment Heaney was in.

A similar example in An Advancement of Learning is,

‘Smudging the silence’ this tells you exactly how the silence changes when the rat emerges from the water in the river.

Heaney uses many poetic devices in his poetry to bring out the themes of the poetry. He uses onomatopoeia such as ‘rasping’ in the second stanza of Digging to allow the reader to create a vivid imagination of what it was like when Heaney was there. It manages to use the sound that Heaney probably would actually of heard.

In An Advancement of Learning he uses a number of metaphors, he uses the river as a metaphor for himself as a person,

‘Pliable, oil-skinned, wearing’

He also uses the metaphor of a rat for his fears this was probably used because he did hate rats although it works well as representing fears that crawled out of him.

Alliteration is also used in Digging an example of this is ‘gravelly ground’ I think this helps promote the readers interest in the poem as well as again emphasising the point about the ground.

Heaney uses clear breaks between Stanza to give the poems a good structure he also uses other clever ways of dividing up then stanza to get the readers interest and this can be seen in the second to third stanzas of Digging,

‘My father, digging. I look down’

This is cleverly written because as the reader looks down the page in front of him Heaney is also looking down out of the window at his father in the garden. This also helps to create a vivid picture of what Heaney was experiencing in his childhood.

The stanza are also divided up as to the thought processes going through Heaney’s mind at the time this can be seen between stanzas five and six,

‘Just like his old man

My Grandfather cut more turf in a day…’

This is effective as it creates splits between different topics yet at the same time keeps the whole poem running together.

This division between stanzas is also similar in An Advancement of Learning. The stanza are still divided up according to the subject Heaney is thinking of at the same time, however the stanza are linked by incomplete sentences from one stanza to the next.

‘My throat sickened so quickly that

I turned down the path in cold sweat’

In Digging Heaney uses a conversational tone to make the poem more interesting to the reader, he does this in the sixth stanza when he is talking about his Grandfather. It is further made conversational by the use of slang phrases such as ‘by God’

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