The ‘best words’ anthology includes sixteen poems written before 1900 and 16 poems written after 1900. In this essay I will be discussing five of them all written post 1900. These poems are ‘An advancement of learning’ and ‘Churning day’ by Seamus Heaney, ‘My Grandmother’ written by Elizabeth Jennings, ‘The road not taken’ by Robert Frost and Mirror by Sylvia Plath. All the poems appear to have underlying themes and an interesting and clever use of language. The first poem is ‘An Advancement Of Learning’ by Heaney.
Heaney’s poems handled themes of love, death, generation and renewal. They have a strong dramatic sense. Many of his early poems deal with experiences of childhood and how apparently trivial moments can change entirely the way we look at the world. In this poem he confronts a rat. The poem starts with “I took the embankment path (As always deferring the bridge)” childhood ingenuousness and curiosity come into play here.
The embankment path is more exciting than the bride so that is the way he chooses. The river nosed past, pliable, oil-skinned, wearing a transfer of gables and sky” the river is personified as a living creature and, the enjambment between “wearing” and “a transfer” makes the poem flow into the next verse, reminiscent of the river. The “wearing a transfer of gables and sky” symbolizes reflections and how he may be reflecting on his childhood experience. The rat comes into the picture in the 3rd stanza. The alliteration of sibilance gives the impression of hissing with, something, slobbered, smudging, silence, slimed and sickened.
We get the idea that he does not like rats and the hissing may be a metaphor for the snake in the Garden of Eden. This snake of course represented evil and fear, just as the rat did to Heaney. The poem then goes on to tell the story of what happened during the experience. A graphic picture is described, as it is in Heaneys other poem ‘Churning Day’. Just as he describes the rat “back bunched and glistening, ears plastered down on his knobbed skull” in ‘An Advancement Of Learning”, the crocks in ‘Churning Day’ are described with, “A thick-crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast, ardened gradually on top of the four crocks that stood, large pottery bombs, in the small pantry. ”
The poem is about a memory of a childhood experience and confronting fears. The bridge becomes an awareness that danger is everywhere and so, it is the safe route. Childhood innocence is lost through experience. The title embodies this in as much that he realizes rats are everywhere or symbolically, danger is ubiquitous. The bridge is the safe option that leads up from childhood experiences into adulthood. It was a pyretic victory, one won at considerable loss.
Churning day is another poem written by Heaney. It is also a childhood experience as was ‘An Advancement Of Learning’. This poem reveals his need to look back and take stock of childhood. In ‘An Advancement Of Learning’ he considers an unpleasant childhood experience whilst this poem confronts a more pleasant experience as a child. The butter making, which in those days was usually done on the farm using its own milk. In this poem he describes the sights and sounds creating an image, which is both tactile and visual. In the first verse the scene is set. “Large pottery bombs” may be a metaphor for war.
The milk may be exploding into flavour, symbolic of exploding bombs. The poem may also try to explain the biological wonder of where milk comes from, “hot brewery gland, cud and udder”. When it mentions, “the hooped churn was scoured with plumping kettles” it may be referring to boiling kettles reaching bursting point that is needed to sterilize the churns. These are the churns which “stood, purified, on the flagged kitchen floor”. Purified like a font in a baptism or other religious ceremonies, perhaps communion. The rhythm in the second stanza “arms ached.
Hands blistered” contributes to the movement of churning as in ‘An Advancement Of Learning’ with the alliteration of sibilance in the third verse. The pace of the poem then quickens, it echoes the pace at which the people had to work. The third stanza creates an image that is tactile and visual just as in ‘An Advancement Of Learning’. “Heavy and rich, coagulated sunlight that they fished, dripping, in a wide tin strainer, heaped up like gravel in the bowl”. The sunlight reflects a warm, contented colour, perhaps because the job is done, weary but satisfied.
After the butter making “the house would stink long after … acrid as a sulphur mine. ” It may be reminiscent of the hanging scent of incense after communion. “Our brains turned crystals full of clean deal churns”, the workers now have a clear mind, brains full of the many facets of butter making. The poem overall describes a happy childhood experience in Heaneys life, whereas ‘An advancement of learning’ is a more unpleasant one. Many of Jennings poems reflect difficult personal experiences in her life. Her poems deal with the themes of companionship, family, religious experience, anguish and solitude.
She deals with them in a way that is calm, insightful and elevating. ‘My Grandmother’ is a poem relating to the theme of family and companionship, or lack of it. As with ‘Churning Day and ‘An Advancement Of Learning’ it depicts a childhood experience. The poem is written in four verses. The first stanza describes her Grandmother. It sets the scene of the poem but unlike ‘Churning Day’ and ‘An Advancement Of Learning’, it does not give a detailed image of the scene, just the person. “She kept an antique shop – or it kept her. ” This suggests that the shop was her reason for being, her whole life revolved around it.
Her only concern was for the antiques appearance and that people do not need companionship “Polish was all, there was no need of love”. Her solitude is reflected in the fact that she “watched her own reflection” and it was these “salvers and silver bowls” she lived among, not people. The objects are all described in twos in this paragraph “Apostle spoons and Bristol glass … faded silks, the heavy furniture … brass salvers and silver bowls. ” The perfect pattern adjectives symbolize the repetition of her life, the monotony.
In the second verse the remorse and guilt Jennings felt are explored, or still may feel about the way she once refused her Grandmother. “And I remember how I once refused to go out with her, since I was afraid. ” Perhaps she refused because she didn’t want to be polished and perfected like the antiques. “It was perhaps a wish not to be used like antique objects” but to the Grandmother the antiques have great importance. They replace the human companionship and love in her life. She takes great pride in them and Jennings wish not to be used like them.
Though the Grandmother can see her reflection in her antiques, she is denied to see them in her Grandaughter, perhaps something she expected. Beneath the layers of polish lay her feelings “Though she never said that she was hurt, I still could feel the guilt of that refusal, guessing how she felt. ” She could empathise with her Grandmother but could not do anything about it. It is hard to forge personal relationships and the silence gnawed away at her conscience. Jennings realizes this when the grandmother becomes “too frail to keep a shop”.
There seems to be a reference to death when “all her best things (were put) in one long, narrow room. ” It may be a metaphor for a coffin, a reference to death. “The place smelt old, of things too long kept shut” perhaps like her heart. Absent people in her life, family and friends. There were no close family ties “to give her own reflection back again”. The last stanza seems to be telling us that it is very important to get things right first time. Never let the sun go down on an angry word, there may not be a tomorrow, is a well-known proverb. “Things she never used but needed” reflects things that were important to her.
Beautiful things, which did fill her life, but nothing as beautiful as her family, which should have filled it. The finger marks mentioned might symbolize the impression she left on people. She left nothing tangible behind to give her individuality. Things like photographs, of sentimental value to represent her life. The poem as a whole is characterized by the sincerity of its attempt to look back, as an adult, on a relationship that, as a child, was bound up with feelings of guilt. There is no effort to sentimentalise the Grandmother now she is dead.
Only in the poignancy of some of the images, and in Jennings need to reflect on her relationship with her grandmother, can we distinguish the lasting impression the woman made on her Grandaughter. In ‘The Road Not Taken’ Frost examines the concept of choices in life. How one choice will lead to another and how we should not assume that we could make a decision. There are always unseen problems. The poem starts with “two roads diverged in a yellow wood”. The reference to yellow maybe reminiscent of the beginning of a new life, one that is warm and bright.
The road itself maybe a metaphor for life. Frost says he is regretful that he could not travel down both of the paths. He “looked down one as far as (he) could to where it bent in the undergrowth. ” This path was bent into uncertainty where he couldn’t see. Perhaps this is why he chose the other path. This one was “grassy and wanted wear”. He chose the road that not many had walked on. Frost wanted to be different and not follow the crowd, but really the paths were about the same, maybe this is what he dreamed.
The poem then goes on to say he would keep “the first for another day! but making commitments usually means we have to stick to them in the adult world. There is always something to learn, just like in ‘My Grandmother’ with personal relationships. We are taught that anger and resentment are destructive. In this poem we are taught that though we promise ourselves we shall do things it is unlikely that we will. Robert Burns ‘To a mouse’ tells us this. There is no point in regretting things we have not done. In ‘My Grandmother’ something could have been put right. This means that sometimes it is important to get things right first time.
In this sense the poems compliment each other. They both have carefully chosen meanings. The last verse states that Frost is “telling this with a sigh”. Whether this is a contented or unhappy sigh we do not know. It has made all the difference for good or for ill. The words are ambiguous. We shall never know what he meant, just as we shall never know our future. Plath had a tragically short life. She committed suicide in 1963. Much of Plaths work has a dark side and she suffered from chronic depression in the last years of her life.
The bell jar’, her autobiography reveals much of the pressure she was under and her obsession with her image. “The mirror over my bureau seemed slightly warped and much too silver. The face in it looked like the reflection in a ball of dentists mercury. ” And “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used up I looked. ” Throughout the poem “I” and “she” are referred to. Plath may be objectively and analytically observing the despair of ‘She’, who may be perceived as her objective self.
What she wants to be and looking from the out side in, analysing herself. The poem starts “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions”. It seems the mirror takes things exactly as they are without stopping to think about them. Without letting personal emotions change its feelings. A mirror is not biased. It is not clouded by feelings, perhaps like Plaths mind is. “Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike. ” At the start of the poem it seems to simply be, about a mirror, but it soon becomes apparent that it is in fact a metaphor for something else. This something else maybe Plath herself.
There is great impact on “the eye of a little god, four-cornered”. This suggests that she worships the mirror as people worship God. God rules over everything, just as the mirror rules over her life. The last part of the verse talks about her relationship with the mirror. “Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall … I have looked at it so long I think it is part of my heart. ” Perhaps it is reminiscent of something that she has wanted for so long she thinks it is real and part of her. What this is is uncertain. Conceivably it may be her objective self.
The second verse seems reminiscent of the youth Narcissus, who was obsessed with his own image. Just like “she”, he stared into a lake, and died as a result. Plath was obsessed with her own image, critical of whom she was and perhaps caused her mental breakdown. Unlike the mirror, which reflects things back precise and exact, the lake conceals depth, and doubt. There is a reference to the candles and the moon in that they are liars, which gives the idea that she is not fond of it. “Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon”. It maybe darkness covering what she really is. Candles and the moon create dim light.
To survive in society we must sometimes dim our consciousness to fit in and not always follow our personal beliefs. Plath did not do this so she was treated badly and shunned by many. We are told that the woman rewards the lake “with tears and an agitation of hands,” As if the lake gets pleasure from other peoples suffering. It is evidence of the depression in which she lives. She believes that “in me has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman”. She doesn’t want to be old because it makes her ugly, but is it is upon her and it “rises to her day after day” swallowing her up “like a terrible fish. “