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Kelso High School English Department

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1 Kelso High School English Department
Higher English Set Text - MacCaig

2 Aunt Julia Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic very loud and very fast. I could not answer her — I could not understand her. She wore men's boots when she wore any. — I can see her strong foot, stained with peat, paddling with the treadle of the spinning wheel while her right hand drew yarn marvellously out of the air.

3 Hers was the only house where I've lain at night
in the absolute darkness of a box bed, listening to crickets being friendly. She was buckets and water flouncing into them. She was winds pouring wetly round house-ends. She was brown eggs, black skirts and a keeper of threepennybits in a teapot.

4 Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic very loud and very fast
Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic very loud and very fast. By the time I had learned a little, she lay silenced in the absolute black of a sandy grave at Luskentyre. But I hear her still, welcoming me with a seagull's voice across a hundred yards of peatscrapes and lazybeds and getting angry, getting angry with so many questions unanswered. Norman MacCaig

5 Subject of the poem The subject of this poem is Norman MacCaig's Aunt Julia. She lived in a croft on a small island in the Outer Hebrides, speaking no English, only her native Gaelic language.

6 Form This is an autobiographical poem so it makes sense that the poet employs a first person narrative stance. Writing in free verse helps to create a conversational style and tone, while the use of enjambment and repetition allow him to emphasise key aspects of the poem.

7 Structure The poem is divided into five stanzas which each deal with a specific focus. Stanza One : introduces us to the subject of the poem- Aunt Julia. Stanza Two - describes her physical appearance and the objects MacCaig most strongly associates with her. Stanza Three - the perspective moves away from Julia to the way the poet felt when he visited her.

8 Structure Stanza Four - MacCaig uses personification to create a sense of her character. Stanza Five - The concluding stanza reflects on his own frustration that he was unable to communicate effectively with her while she was alive, whilst at the same time expressing his enduring affection and admiration for her.

9 Stanza One - Analysis The poem begins with a series of warmly drawn, affectionate childhood memories. Opening stanza contains series of straightforward statements. The straightforward statements and simple language help convey that it is with the eyes and ears of a child that he remembers Aunt Julia. We are introduced to the slightly eccentric personality of his aunt with her loud, fast and incomprehensible speech.

10 Stanza One - Analysis The use of the dash at the end of the third line suggests that the poet has adapted the parallelism in line 3 / 4 to make line 4 stronger.

11 Stanza One - Analysis Aunt Julia speaks Gaelic very loud and very fast. The speaker states “ I could not answer her, I could not understand her” immediately establishing one of the main themes - frustration at barriers in communication. Technique: Repetition Repetition of ‘very’ highlights the inability he had to communicate with his aunt. However, despite this inability to understand or be understood, the tone is affectionate and emphasises that, even without a common language, strong bonds can be created.

12 Stanza Two - Analysis However, despite this language barrier he goes onto draw a picture of a strong, capable and passionate woman who created a haven of safety and security in her house for the young boy.

13 Stanza Two - Analysis The poet begins to create a picture of a woman whose work is physically demanding, both out of doors and within her house. Despite the fact that the author claimed he could not “understand” her, this refers only to her language, because his descriptions of her reveal that he has a very clear “understanding” of who she is, and what she stands for.

14 Stanza Two - Analysis She is often barefoot but if shod, wears practical men's boots and the poet clearly admires her completing these tasks with capability. Word choice : “She wore men’s boots / when she wore any” Suggestion that she is practical.

15 Stanza Two - Analysis The strength of her character is suggested by
lexical choice – “She wore men’s boots / when she wore any” Reinforced by image of “strong foot”

16 Stanza Two - Analysis The reader pictures her engaged in one of the duties of her domestic life, spinning. This is a skill heavily associated with island life since Harris is famous for producing tweed.

17 Stanza Two - Analysis The length of the line
“paddling with the treadle of the spinning wheel” highlights the length of time the spinning process takes. Aunt Julia is always shown to be moving, emphasising her hard-working, active nature.

18 Stanza Two - Analysis The description of her right hand :
“drew yarn/marvellously out of the air” uses lexical choice with “marvellously” to convey the air of magic or illusion about the task which was almost entrancing for the poet as a young boy to watch.

19 Stanza Two - Analysis The use of long vowels in :
“her hand drew yarn “ elongates the line and helps to convey the impression of the wool being stretched out and made taut. The use of the present tense throughout this stanza creates a sense of immediacy and shows how vividly and readily he can still access these memories.

20 Stanza Three - Analysis
In stanza three we see clearly that the language barrier was surmounted by an instinctive bond between the speaker and his aunt. As a result the young boy feels safe and secure in the dark island of the box bed in Aunt Julia’s home. It is enclosed and comforting and he vividly remembers lying in the absolute darkness listening to crickets being friendly.

21 Stanza Three - Analysis
Again the affection he feels for her is evident in the decision to open this stanza with the use of the pronoun “Hers”, emphasising her significance to him.

22 Stanza Three - Analysis
Stanza 3 has no endstops creating a sense of pace and excitement. The child is alone, at night, in a comparatively strange bed – of sorts. This is often a recipe for fear, but not in this case. The use of lexical choice in “absolute darkness” shows how frightening it might have been for him, but because he feels so comfortable with his aunt, even the crickets are regarded as friendly. Despite the poverty, there is a different kind of wealth associated with this existence, a spiritual wealth and harmony.

23 Stanza Four - Analysis In stanza four, MacCaig employs personification to compare his aunt both with the elements he associates with this landscape, the wind and water, and within the objects and garments that for him are most evocative of her. He feels that she is so close to nature that she is a part of it. Stanza 4 bombards the senses with a list of three statements, all starting the same way repetition of “She was…” for emphasis.

24 Stanza Four - Analysis “she was winds …” again, identifies her with nature and suggests her energy and speed.

25 Stanza Four - Analysis At the same time he remembers her through a series of mundane domestic objects. – “She was buckets/and water flouncing into them” These objects show her to be natural, traditional and careful with money. Again the impression conveyed is of a woman in constant motion: the transferred epithet used in “water flouncing” gives a description of the deliberate, vigorous way she moved. This conveys an impression to the reader of how quickly and energetically she performed her manual tasks. It also identifies her with nature by suggesting that she was water.

26 Stanza Four - Analysis “She was brown eggs, black skirts/and a keeper of threepenny bits” uses metaphors and listing to provide even more details about her life. His aunt, despite her poverty, had a sense of pride and dignity about her, in her dedication to her work, her unity with the natural elements, even to the point of saving small amounts of money so that she could remain self-sufficient.

27 Stanza Four - Analysis These metaphors seem to extend beyond merely describing Julia as an individual in order to use her as a symbol associated with, or representative of, the particular landscape, lifestyle and culture of this geographical area. Aunt Julia, then, epitomises the specific way of life of the crofting islanders who worked the land in a harsh, unforgiving climate. Despite the arduousness of this lifestyle, there is a pride and honesty in it, which the speaker obviously admires. Julia could even be taken to symbolise the land and elements themselves in this part of the world – difficult at times, yet ultimately providing an honest, noble self-sufficient existence.

28 Stanza Five - Analysis The final stanza begins with the same two lines as at the beginning of the poem: “ Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic / very loud and very fast”. This provides a kind of refrain and brings the poem neatly to a rounded end.

29 Stanza Five - Analysis However a darker tone enters the poem at this point. By the time MacCaig had learned a little Gaelic, his aunt was dead, lying “silenced in the absolute black / of a sandy grave”. The contrast between the loud, talkative vibrant Aunt Julia in life and the utter, absolute quiet of death is emphasised using enjambment to position “silenced” at the opening of line five.

30 Stanza Five - Analysis Word choice of ‘Absolute black’ is a reminder of the ‘Absolute darkness’ in stanza three. This time the darkness is no comfort as it represents Aunt Julia’s death.

31 Stanza Five - Analysis The tone seems almost accusatory, as if blaming death for suffocating and stopping her voice. There is an element of sadness in the fact that he is desperate to communicate with his aunt in her own language and learns enough – just too late - as she dies just at the time he feels ready. His anger is suggested by the finality of the lexical choice in “silenced”, “absolute” and “black”.

32 Stanza Five - Analysis This sinister, unsettling tone continues in the use of imagery describing “the absolute black” of her “sandy grave.” Unlike the comforting security of the “absolute darkness” of the box bed in the third stanza, the subtle shift from “absolute darkness” to “absolute black” conveys the frighteningly bleak void of death.

33 Stanza Five - Analysis Instead of sustaining this melancholic, maudlin tone though, the speaker seems to challenge the finality of death with the use of lexical choice in the line: “But I hear her still, welcoming me/with a seagull’s voice”.

34 Stanza Five - Analysis She has left such a strong impression on him he can still vividly imagine her calling to him in welcome. Her voice is loud, carrying across a hundred yards and shrill like a seagull’s piercing cry. Again, the metaphor used connects her to the natural world which played such a huge part in her life.

35 Stanza Five - Analysis The poem ends with the poet imagining her: “and getting angry, getting angry / with so many questions, / unanswered” The repetition of “angry” emphasises the strength of the speaker’s feelings.

36 Stanza Five - Analysis The final word “unanswered” is left on a line of its own (positioning) serving to reinforce the speaker’s enduring sense of frustration.

37 Stanza Five - Analysis The ending of the poem is ambiguous (poetic technique ambiguity) and could be interpreted in a number of ways. The questions he alludes to could represent, literally, her questions to the boy, which he was unable to answer as he had no Gaelic, or they could represent all the questions he would have loved to ask but was unable to until it was too late.

38 Stanza Five - Analysis Moving beyond the literal, the questions could represent the more universal queries we all have about the meaning and mysteries of life itself. The repetition of the word “angry” in these final three lines could suggest MacCaig is warning us to hold onto and cherish the culture and heritage of the island way of life. He is afraid if we allow it to die, like Aunt Julia, then it too will be lost forever.

39 Theme - Isolation One of the main themes which emerges in this poem is the sense of isolation felt by the speaker, who is frustrated by his inability to communicate effectively with this much loved relative. Despite this barrier though, he shows us that emotions can often transcend language through the obvious, almost spiritual connection and affection between the two.

40 Theme – Disappearance of this particular way of life
On a wider level, Julia comes to symbolise elements of a distinct Scottish heritage, language and culture that are at risk of disappearing forever in the modern world. The final three lines give vent to his anger – the loss of something very precious both as a person and the symbol of his Scottish heritage.

41 Characterisation – Aunt Julia
He clearly liked and admired his Aunt Julia and presents her as a passionate (verse 1), welcoming (verse 5) and comforting person (verse 3) who made him feel safe. Task – List appropriate quotations for each of these.

42 Theme – Disappearance of a particular way of life
Most obviously the Gaelic language – it seems alien as it could not be understood Description of features of the landscape The spinning wheel used for generations to make Harris tweed The traditional box bed The use of an actual place name: Luskentyre

43 Theme The poem can be read as a lament on the passing away of a beloved aunt, but it might also be possible to read it as a lament on the passing away of an entire way of life. The poet certainly tries to give the reader a sense of admiration for the kind of low-tech cottage industry life that Aunt Julia lived. The tone of this poem is a mixture of respect, admiration, affection, frustration and lamentation (grief).

44 1. What is the effect of the structure and word choice of lines 3 and 4 in stanza 1?
2. Why is the single dash used in line 3, stanza 2? 3. How does MacCaig’s word choice build up his admiration for Aunt Julia in stanza 2? 4. How is this admiration / pleasant memory continued with his word choice and line structure in stanza 3? 5. Comment on the effect of the figurative language in stanza 4. 6. Why does MacCaig repeat the opening lines of the poem at the start of the last stanza? 7. Comment on MacCaig’s use of enjambment in the final stanza. 8. What technique is MacCaig using in lines 3 and 4 of the final stanza and what effect does this have? 9. Comment on the effectiveness of the word choice in line 5 of the final stanza. 10. What is the effect of the imagery used in line 9 of the final stanza? 11. What is significant about the structure of line 12 of the final stanza and what effect does this have? 12. What do you think MacCaig means by the last two lines of the poem? Comment both on word choice and structure.

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