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“Aunt Julia” by Norman MacCaig.

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1 “Aunt Julia” by Norman MacCaig

2 Themes Communication barrier – MacCaig did not speak any Gaelic and his aunt did not speak English. He regrets this after her death. Isolation – the poem is set in a remote part of the Isle of Harris. Aunt Julia is very self sufficient. Death/regret – MacCaig was fond of his aunt. He admired her and regrets not having spent more time with her.

3 Themes Gaelic culture/Scottishness – With his aunt’s passing, MacCaig has lost part of his Gaelic culture and heritage. Love and family – It is clear that MacCaig felt a strong bond with his formidable aunt, despite their language barrier.

4 Verse One The first verse uses simple language and repetition which is appropriate as he is reflecting on his childhood, “I could not answer her – I could not understand her.” Right away we understand that there is a communication barrier between them. The use of the dash introduces the reason why they could not communicate with some humour.

5 Verse Two In verse two we get the sense that his aunt is eccentric,
“She wore men’s boots/when she wore any.” this also suggests that she is used to a life of physical labour. This is reinforced by the fact that her feet are “stained with peat”. The reference to, “her strong foot” suggests an overall impression of hardiness.

6 Verse Two Aunt Julia’s physical hardiness is contrasted with
her skill on the spinning wheel, “while her right hand drew yarn marvellously out of the air.” He has referred to two parts of her body in this verse, showing how at one she is with both the land and using natural products. We are given a picture of a self sufficient woman with a strong sense of who she is. There is also a magical quality to how she spins, showing his fascination with his aunt.

7 Verse Three Structure – verse three has no punctuation at the end of lines. This creates a sense of pace and excitement. Word choice - As a child, he is alone there at night but instead of fear there is a sense of being at one with nature, “listening to the crickets being friendly.” Despite their poverty, there is a spiritual wealth.

8 Verse Four A sense of his aunt’s personality is given through the repeated phrase, “She was…” There is the idea that she didn’t just do these tasks, she was part of them – again showing harmony in her life. A series of metaphors illustrates this, “She was buckets/and water flouncing into them.” She is identified with nature, moving fluidly like the water, performing her tasks energetically.

9 Verse Four MacCaig appeals to the reader’s senses:
Touch – with “water”, “wind” and “wetly”. Sound – idea of “flouncing”. Sight – visual use of colour, “brown” and “black”. Taste – hinted at with “eggs” and “teapot”. His aunt was poor but worked hard and had a sense of pride. She was independent and thrifty, “a keeper of threepennybits.”

10 Verse Five Repetition - the last verse begins with the same two lines as the first verse, “Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic very loud and very fast.” The poem comes full circle as he remembers his aunt and her vibrant personality.

11 Verse Five There is a sense of anger in the finality of his word choice, “silenced in the absolute black/ of a sandy grave/” Now that he can finally communicate with her, this once lively woman has gone. There is a stark contrast with, “spoke Gaelic/very loud and very fast.” We feel his regret at her loss.

12 Verse Five However, there is a sense of him still feeling a connection to her, “But I hear her still, welcoming me/ with a seagull’s voice/” In life she was at one with her environment and even now he feels she is part of the wonder of nature around him, as he compares the memory of her voice to the call of the birds.

13 Verse Five There is a change of mood in the last three lines of the poem, “and getting angry, getting angry/ with so many questions/unanswered.” He uses repetition and juxtaposition to emphasise his frustration at her loss and the fact that he wants to learn more about her and his Scottish heritage but no longer can.

14 The Poem As A Whole Overall, MacCaig portrays his aunt as:
passionate (verse 1), welcoming (verse 5) and comforting (verse 3). The tone is a mix of respect, admiration, affection, frustration and lamentation (grief). MacCaig uses first person narrative to show this is a personal experience. He uses free verse (no regular rhyme scheme) which reflects the mixed emotions and random thoughts he has as he remembers his aunt.

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