Encounters with Creatures
In the poems “An Advancement of Learning” and “An August Midnight” the connection between both poems is their focuses on their encounters with creatures, Heaney’s with a rat on a river embankment and Hardy’s with several nocturnal insects that fly through his window. Both draw on the idea of their personal encounters with creatures to portray these ideas. In contrast they are composed of different structures. In “An Advancement of Learning” it is composed of nine stanzas of four short lines which lend the poem a sense of sudden flashback images. In contrast “An August Midnight” it is made up of two stanzas with six long lines, giving the poem a calm, contemplative quality. In “An Advancement of Learning” Heaney draws on his childhood phobia and fear of rats. This is due to his experiences of fear growing up on Mossbawn farm in the 1940s. The rats provide a link between his childhood and his urban life as an adult. “An August Midnight” is based on Hardy’s Darwinism beliefs which pervade the poem. It is based on Hardy’s beliefs that all animals were sentient, conscious beings worthy of human respect based on the evolutionary theory that all living things are related. His scientific interest is also evident in the close up acute details of the insects’ anatomy “winged, horned and spined” and Hardy’s fascination with natural history, which was typical of many middle class Victorians.
The settings of both poems are very different. In “An Advancement of Learning” it is situated outside in an urban river landscape. It is uninviting as the river is portrayed as polluted with “dirty-keeled swans”. Overall it is an urban setting and grubby environment, where it conveys the negativity of the encounter. Whereas in “An August Midnight” it is inside and a welcoming scene inside Hardy’s study where the insects are lured in by lamplight and an open window in an alluring interior. The opening of “An August Midnight” is atmospheric which fits in with the philosophical tone of the poem and the sheer delight Hardy feels in watching the insects alight on his desk. Even though the insect are trespassing on the speaker’s territory they are welcome. The iambic tetrameter “the beat of a clock from a distant floor” of the second line mimics the rhythm of the ticking clock and creates a hushed feeling of anticipation. Unlike Heaney’s encounter, the appearance of Hardy’s creatures seems almost expected, “On this scene enter”, the theatre imagery displays the actors on stage, directions announcing them. In comparison the opening of “An Advancement of Learning” elicits the grimy setting which prefigures the negative encounter he experiences. Furthermore the rat’s arrival is unexpected and sudden.
In “An Advancement of Learning” the onomatopoeic sibilance in the second stanza “smudged the silence “indicates the rat’s almost imperceptible rustling on the river bank. Its wetness is evoked in the verbs “slobbering”,” slimed “with the tactile details bring the rat to life. The verb “he clockworked” makes the creature seems almost that of alien like. The metaphor “this terror” conveys the rats as an embodiment of fear. In addition the military imagery surveillance “he trained on me ““bridgehead” identifies the rat as the enemy. The staccato rhythm of “stopped, back bunched and glistening” conveys the jerky movements in the rodent’s territory. The use of the adjective “knobbed” elicits the bony hardness of the rats’ skull and evokes a feeling of repugnance in the reader. Furthermore the use of the compound adjectives “cold, wet-furred, small-clawed” conveys the tactile, anatomical features. In contrast in “An August Midnight” Hardy portrays his encounter with four insects, the third line uses theatre imagery “On this scene enter” which humanises the insects and elicits the sense that the insects are superior to humans. Furthermore the list of adjectives at the end of that line “winged, horned, and spined” highlights Hardy’s scientific interest in insect anatomy and his fascination with natural history typical of a Victorian at this time in class.
Hardy goes on naming the insects using the word “Dumbeldore” a Dorset vernacular that evokes a tone of affection in its suggestion that the insect is innocent and kind. The last line of the first stanza uses personification “sleepy fly” to humanise the insect and further goes on to pursue the idea of the insects being described as humans. The second stanza opens with the use of the plural “we” investing the nocturnal visitors with respect and equivalence to portray that the insects are equal to humans in Hardy’s views. The second line indicates the convergence of human and animal “point of time, at this point in space” to convey the idea that both are indistinguishable from one and another. Hardy goes on to describe the insects as “my guests” which conveys the idea that he is privileged to have them come to his study but that he welcomes them with such consideration.
The fourth line add a sense of comedy to the poem “bang at the lamp and fall supine”. With these comical actions a sense of levity is brought in that Hardy can perceive a humorous dimension to the reflexive behaviour of the insects. Similarly both poems use exclamations in “An August Midnight,” The exclamation mark indicates his moment of epiphany which conveys his sense of awe towards the insects. “Yet why?” Hardy describes them as the earth’s secrets he gives them a cosmic significance. The last line expresses “They know Earth-secrets that know not I”. In addition Hardy expresses his own humility and recognising that, although the insects do not know more than he does, they do know things that are hidden from him. In “An Advancement of Learning” the exclamation mark conveys the intensity and the moment of intellectual discovery of realisation that these insects are far from insignificant.
In “An Advancement of Learning” the speaker’s response is emotional and fearful as is evident in the visceral reaction. “My throat sickened”. The change to defiance is explained in the pivotal position of “I turned to stare”. In opposition “An August Midnight “the encounter is intellectual with a sense of respect and awe and Hardy’s fascination with Darwinism theories. In “An Advancement of Learning” Heaney overcomes his fear which is evident in the military metaphor of the “bridgehead”. As he crossed the bridge a metaphorical advancement is connected to the title to portray his defeat of fear. Contrasting to tis in “An August Midnight” he describes the encounter as preordained “Thus meet we five”.
This is a convergence of human and animal in time and space. In conclusion Heaney experiences a sense of triumph as he “crossed the bridge” and overcomes his childhood fear. Whereas Hardy as a moment of epiphany as he realises the cosmic significance of the insects with his interest in Darwinism theory of evolution.