Seamus Heaney: Churning Day & Ancestral Photograph

Seamus Heaney was brought up in a rural farm in Ireland, Mossbawn. Many of his poems are based upon his childhood experiences. In fact many influential critics have noted that his oeuvre and is drawn from and reflects everyday aspects of life  .

In ‘Churning Day‘, he uses the senses very effectively to recall exact sights, sounds and smells and feelings of incidents and times in the past. The poem reflects the simple experience of churning cream to make butter.  We visualize the huge effort which goes into the creation of the butter and the way its creation takes on an almost ritualistic experience.  At the end, it is almost like a miracle when it is produced, there is a huge mental and physical satisfaction in its creation.

In “Churning Day”, Heaney uses a lot of onomatopoeia, even the title is onomatopoeia, ‘Churning’. ‘Plumping’ (Line 7) is also using onomatopoeia to give you a sort of snug feeling. ‘The plash and gurgle’ (Line 33) and ‘pat and slap’ (Line 34) is Heaney’s other use of onomatopoeia in “Churning Day”. These make you imagine  that you are actually there while the churning is going on. It is obviously a very noisy business and I think Heaney effectively conveys that fact to us well.

Ancestral Photograph

In the poem ‘Digging’ as well as in ‘Ancestral Photograph’ we see the tension between Heaney’s longing for the life of his ancestors and the justification of his own calling tells us where exactly he situates his dead. He explores this in these poems preferring to maintain a tension between present and past, and concludes finally, in “Personal Helicon,” that his writing is not about removing power from the dead, but about empowering his own acts in the face of ancestral judgment. Killing and yet honoring his dead will continue to be important themes for Heaney, and it is within this interment in the text, within this storing in both personal and collective memory, that Heaney writes. This pitting of ancestral memories against the work that the poet feels necessary for himself is reminiscent of the feelings toward death seen in other, more conventional elegies. in ‘Ancestral Photograph’, Heaney in a pensive mood, thinking about his family’s history and his own involvement in it, is describing his great-uncle from an old photograph that has been on the wall for decades and intexts his memories and his fathers in this elegy as well.

Refer to all the poems that we have studied and try to answer these questions:

  • Select at least two poems and examine how Heaney presents childhood.
  • How does Heaney present Nature in at least two poems you have studied?
  • ‘Things are never quite as they seem.’ How does Heaney show this in at least two poems?

Ms Raman Jeet Dhillon

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