An encounter with a rat evokes fear and revulsion in most human beings; Seamus Heaney thoughtfully explored this truth in his moving poem, An Advancement of Learning.
An Advancement of Learning is about overcoming the poet’s instinctive human fear and disgust. The content of the poem is simple; the poet walks along an embankment and unexpectedly encounters rats.
The first animal sickens him, but the second, due to its response to his presence, inspires a deeper impact. It leads him to question his own response to these creatures, which humans generally reject as unpleasant, repellent and unworthy of our compassion.
Poetry: Evocative Language Invites Our Engagement
The poem is in stanzas of four lines, and the lines are short and sharp, giving the impression of a series of flashing images. The poem utilizes rhyme and half-rhyme, although the pattern is not rigid. This gives the poet the freedom to choose exactly the right word for his purpose such as rhyming “sewage” with “bridge.”
Heaney uses rich vocabulary and evocative similes; for example, the verbs used to show the rats’ visual impact, such as “slobbered,” “smudging,” “slimed” and “nimbling.”
References to an “oil skinned river” and “dirty-keeled swans” conjure a distasteful scene, a fitting setting for the appearance of the rat, which “slobbered, curtly close, smudging the silence.” This provides the reader with a sharp awareness of the poet’s sense of outrage at the creature’s intrusion on his walk, striking the poet with a “throat-sickened” feeling as he hurries on “in a cold sweat.”
Advancement in Learning Through Rat Encounter
When the poet encounters the second rat, the animal’s reaction challenges him and, thereby, advances his learning. “But God, another was nimbling/up the far bank, tracing its wet/Arcs on the stones.” The carefully-chosen expletive “But God” reveals, in an instant, the poet’s natural, human horror. The break in the second line at the word wet enables the reader to focus on the first word of the following line, and brings the tracing of the wet “Arcs” sharply into focus.
In spite of all this, the poet turns to stare with “deliberate thrilled care,” as though compelled by fascination. There is a change in him, as he suddenly recognises the rat as a sentient, responsive fellow-creature that listens and stares as if trying to comprehend him in return.
For a moment, the poet has forgotten to panic and describes the rat in more objective terms, as if he has deliberately distanced himself from his emotions. “He clockworked aimlessly,” and “Stopped, back bunched and glistening.” The use of the word “insidiously” in “insidiously listening” demonstrates that, despite overcoming his initial sense of panic, the poet still retains a deep distrust of the creature.
Rare Communication Between Man and Beast
This description exposes a heart-stopping moment of rare communication between man and beast and there is almost a trace of affection in the poet’s words: “The raindrop eye and the old snout.” It is as though he is almost laughing at himself when, in the last verse, he refers to “This terror, cold, wet-furred, small-clawed.” He stares, maybe thinking about his own irrational fear. Suddenly, the rat is not just an unpleasant thing, but a feeling, responding creature.
This may have made the poet uncomfortable, so that his last line is mundane, matter-of-fact, yet has a vestige of triumph, showing that the poet is now in control. “Then I walked on and crossed the bridge.”
The poem has come full circle, from a merely factual statement at the beginning and ending with another, the apparent similarity belying what has happened in between. Yet, the last line shows confidence and a sense of achievement that the first lacks.
In reality, the poet has moved on. In out-facing the rat, he conquers the fear he has had since childhood.
“Don’t Be Afraid” – A Fitting Farewell
Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet born 13 April 1939, and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. This much-loved poet died recently in Dublin, on 30 August 2013, aged 74, after a short illness. According to The Telegraph, he wrote his last words, in Latin, for his wife. At his funeral at the Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook, Heaney’s son revealed those last, moving words.
They were: “Don’t be afraid.”