An Advancement of Learning
The poem was written in early 1963 and first published in The Irish Times. It sets out a welling-up of courage that occurred when an instinctively timid person, finding himself with no other options, succeeded in overcoming his natural impulse to run away.
The speaker sets out on a familiar river walk. His aside confirms its habitual nature: As always, deferring/ The bridge.
His initial focus, whilst standing Hunched over the railing, rests on the river’s textures and the reflections cast upon it: pliable, oil-skinned, wearing/ A transfer of gables and sky. His attention to dirty-keeled swans is overtaken by other squeak-like sounds, expressed hissingly via a stream of sibilants: Something slobbered curtly, close/ Smudging the silence. The poet’s use of synaesthesia to interweave vocabulary of sound and vision reinforces the dread of rats that are too repulsive to face up to.
The speaker’s first reaction is one of gut-wrenching fear: one rat slimed out of the water, causing a gag of nausea and cold sweat; then, shock-horror, God, a second nimbling and cutting off the speaker’s escape.
Heaney’s military-style reaction comes as a surprise even to him: Incredibly then/ I established a dreaded/ Bridgehead. Cornered as he is and with little alternative, his pluck increases I turned to stare/ With deliberate thrilled care. Heaney takes the challenge hitherto snubbed head-on.
For the first time the speaker forces himself to overcome his sensations of revulsion by outstaring the rodent. The description that follows is an early example of Heaney’s talent for complementing observation with the richness of his word-hoard.
He portrays the rat’s haphazard circular movement: He clockworked aimlessly a while; its stillness and the textures of its greasy anatomy: back-bunched and listening/ Ears plastered down on his knobbled skull; its slippery, knowing guile: Insidiously listening.
Finally comes the trial of strength: He trained on me (the metaphorical ‘rifle’ extends the military imagery of bridgehead). I stared him out.
In the penultimate stanza Heaney overcomes the panic that was engendered by the proximity of rats around the farm where he lived as a child.
After stand-off comes victory! The rat, This terror, cold, wet-furred, small-clawed, retreats to where it belongs: up a pipe for sewage. After a momentary show of triumph, the speaker walks on; he has successfully crossed a personal bridge, having deferred the real one at the start of his walk!
- Heaney’s title uses a phrase referring to personal educational progress borrowed from English philosopher Francis Bacon’s book The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605). Heaney uses the indefinite article an to specify an incident instrumental to his own personal development.
- a 9 quatrain poem of largely octosyllabic lines; the rhyme scheme follows no strict pattern: now abab, now cdcd, now on even lines, now a middle couplet (v5), now odd lines;
- the poem’s tempi vary to echo the calm start, the panic of being surrounded, the tenseness of stand-off between man and rodents; the momentary pause; the lull ; the triumphant walk-away;
- the punctuation contributes to this with frequent use of comma, sentences completed in mid-line contributing to a quick-moving, fractured drama;
- alliterations: voiced alveolar [d] of considered/ dirty-keeled swans; voiceless velar plosive [k] of curtly, close; sibilant [s] and voiceless alveolar [t] in tandem: something/ smudging/ silence/ trained/ stared out/ forgetting;
- vocabulary of viscous unpleasantness: slobbered/ slimed/ tracing/ glistening/ raindrop eye;
- poetic licence creates a verb from an adjective: nimbling;
- military references: cold sweat/ bridgehead/ trained;
- dual meaning: snubbed: avoided, shunned; portemanteau, a stubby knubbed creature;
- water effects: pliable/ oil-skinned (oil floats separate from water; compare ‘clotted water’ of Death of a Naturalist; the river here personified)/ transfer;
- neologism: clockworked the tin-plate toys of Heaney’s childhood were wound up; when released they inevitably whirred round in circles!
- In the defiant stand-off Heaney reveals one essential characteristic for a poet, close observation remembered: took all in;
- the image of water-stained swans as filthy boats: dirty-keeled.
- The poem contains elements of: memory landscape; a childish phobia overcome; an illustration of nature’s less attractive face;
- a child’s initiation into fear (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.66);
- in an early chapter of Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones Heaney confirms the presence of rodents in the Mossbawn roof-space;
- his aside (Deferring the bridge) conjures up the common idiom ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it’, in the sense of ‘face up to a problem when it crops up’ as indeed it does in this poem.