‘An Advancement of Learning’ is a typical Heaney poem, in that he takes an everyday scene from his childhood in the countryside, but conjures out of it something illuminating; an epiphany if you will. Here, a boy is walking home when he encounters a rat. Ready to turn and run he spies another, blocking his path. Thus cornered, he is forced to confront his fear and instead of fleeing, he contemplates one at close quarters instead. Having done so, he quietens his terror and continues home in a more confident mood.
Explore An Advancement of Learning
Structure and Form
The poem is set out in nine quatrains. The rhyme scheme is irregular, perhaps to convey the shock of seeing the rat, then another, and his reaction to them. The lines are mostly seven or eight beats long. He makes frequent use of enjambment to speed the pace of the poem along.
The poem can be read here.
Analysis of An Advancement of Learning
Heaney takes the title, ‘An Advancement of Learning’, from a book by the sixteenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon The Proficience and Advancement of Learning, and adapts it to suit the purpose of his poem here.
The poem is written in the first person, and the subject is banal, a boy is taking his usual route home, observing the natural world around him as he goes. He chooses to take the ‘embankment path’ and looks at the river. A lovely use of personification is used to describe the river in animalistic terms; almost dog-like, it ‘nosed past’. The adjectives ‘pliable’ and ‘oil-skinned’ suggest a wet spaniel or setter emerging from the water, slick and dark.
Reflected on the water is ‘a transfer of gables and sky’ which the river is ‘wearing’, another example of personification to show the countryside imprinted upon the water. The poet paints us a picture of the boy, so curious to look at the swans that he is ‘hunched over the railing’. The verb ‘hunched’ implies that his shoulders are around his ears, taking in the scene intently. Swans often make an appearance in Irish poetry and feature heavily in Irish myths and legends. But here there is a departure from their usual romantic, majestic depiction. They appear ‘dirty-keeled’, so their under-bellies and feathers are splattered with the unavoidable mud that goes hand in hand with the County Derry weather. The poet includes the detail that the boy is ‘well away from the road now’ which puts distance between him and the security of domestic life. Just as in the poem Death of a Naturalist, we fear that the less benevolent side of nature may surface.
This verse could actually make the reader flinch. Heaney writes the first line so cleverly: ‘Something slobbered curtly, close’, so like the boy we get a glimpse of what he sees and we know it’s not good, but he doesn’t reveal what it is until the end of the next line. The crowded vowel sounds and slimy sibilance capture the movement of the wet rodent and convey its proximity to the boy. The word ‘slobbered’ appears in a few of Heaney’s poems and is a local term to convey wetness or stickiness. We don’t see another full stop until the end of the sixth stanza, so we follow the scurrying of the creatures along and the boy’s fright at the same time. The internal rhyme of ‘My throat sickened so quickly’ captures the bile rising in disgust.
Fourth and Fifth Stanza
We feel the Speaker’s panic acutely as he turns in ‘a cold sweat’. The monosyllabic first line of this stanza accelerates the pace and we hurry along with the Speaker, and feel him start in horror when he gasps ‘But God, another was nimbling/Up the far bank.’ Invoking God when upset and perplexed is a distinctly Irish thing to do. Indeed, many may say plenty more.
Heaney plays with language in this poem and his innovative use of it creates the most vivid image of a rat and its particular way of scurrying along. By taking the adjective ‘nimble’ and turning it into a verb he grasps the way in which a rat would speed along with over the stones. He uses the metaphor of arcs to describe the shape of the body, and this exactly grasps the ridge of the head and the sharp protuberant backbone. There is something almost demonic in this shape, and it is the horror of being thus confronted that makes this situation so shocking that the boy feels ‘Incredibly then/ I established a dreaded/Bridgehead.’ Even the internal rhyme here feels threatening. He employs militaristic language to illustrate that he finds himself in enemy territory and we note then, in amazement, that his fear begins to dissipate and rather a ‘deliberate, thrilled care’ emerges.
The change in tone can be noted with how the two middle lines rhyme here with ‘stare’ and ‘care’. The pace has slowed. Rather than running, the boy is going to address this issue and the wonderfully grandiloquent phrase ‘At my hitherto snubbed rodent’ almost elevates the creature to human status, as though they are warriors in battle and now they must face off.
They size each other up, and the rat, we sense, is wrong-footed. Again, Heaney grasps the movement of the rat exactly, with his inventive use of the word ‘clockworked’. This effectively conveys the size of the creature, which, when we consider the length of the tail as well as its body, is not inconsiderable. As it circles around it is almost meeting itself coming backward, but it is discomfited by the boy’s presence because it does this ‘aimlessly’. Heaney then gives us the most unpleasant image of its ‘back bunched and glistening’. Rats are known for having caused the bubonic plague and I’m afraid the idea of the moisture lying on its back here, coupled with the grotesque image of the “Ears plastered down on his knobbed skull’ caused my throat to thicken as the boys did earlier in stanza three. The short sentence ‘Insidiously listening’ suggests that its brain is working fast as it considers it considers its options, but the word insidious has sly and nasty connotations.
But even so, the boy holds his ground. He forces himself to note everything and lists the characteristics he would have previously found so repulsive. He uses clipped alliteration to describe ‘the tapered tail which followed him’, and as I alluded to earlier, the tail is so long that he almost gives it its own personality. Sticking to the theme of moisture, he describes the eye as a ‘raindrop eye’ which also suggests its shape, and by referring to the snout as ‘old’ he notes perhaps frailty in the animal. The sentences become short and monosyllabic and the standoff continues. Neither move.
Eighth and Ninth Stanza
Now we revisit the source of his fear when the boy recalls his previous encounters with the rats who ‘scraped and fed’ at the hen-coop, and most alarmingly moved ‘on ceiling boards above my bed.’ He looks at every last detail of the rat and it appears to him smaller and less intimidating. There seems to be an irony in referring to it as ‘This terror’ since he notes that it is ‘cold, wet-furred, small-clawed,’ and it ‘Retreated up a pipe for sewage.’
After his initial urge to run, he now lingers a moment after the rat has disappeared, and processes what he has learned from the experience. ‘An Advancement of Learning’ ends with the simple but assertive line “Then I walked on and crossed the bridge’. We come back to the first verse in which he included in parenthesis the fact he habitually avoided the bridge, but this time he chooses to cross it. Whatever caused him anxiety about taking this route has been put to rest.
About Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) grew up in Bellaghy, County Derry. He studied English Literature at Queen’s University Belfast and became one of the most prominent poets of the twentieth century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Although many of the poems focus on the countryside where he grew up, their themes are universal in their scope.