Aunt Julia – Norman MacCaig

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 We are learning to: annotate the text and
identify the use of poetic techniques.
Last poem folks! 
Context of the poem
 Norman MacCaig's Aunt Julia lived on
Scalpay, a small island off the coast of
Harris in the Outer Hebrides.
 Aunt Julia lived a traditional, hardworking
life on a croft and she spoke only her
native Gaelic language.
 MacCaig sometimes described himself as
three quarters Gaelic – three of his
grandparents were Gaels and his mother
came from the same small island.
 He was born and brought up in Edinburgh,
however, and knew Scalpay only from
visits.
 He developed a deep affinity with the
people, landscape and culture of Gaelic
north-west Scotland from his visits there.
Context cont.
 As is evident in the poem, MacCaig felt a
strong attachment to his Aunt Julia despite
the language barrier that existed between
them and this is one of the most
memorable of his studies of Highland
characters.
Representation of Aunt Julia
 Julia is next depicted in a series of striking
metaphors that show how the young
narrator connects her with elements of
nature: with the earth, with water and with
air.
 The last stanza introduces a tone of regret
before ending with a picture of the larger
than life character calling to him still getting
angry, getting angry/with so many questions
unanswered.
Tone of Regret
 The reason for this regret is that only
after Julia's death did the poet learn
enough Gaelic to be able to
communicate with her.
 Hence all the questions that he
would have asked to her must now
remain unanswered, just as her
questions to him as a child had
been.
Form and Structure
 This is an autobiographical poem so it makes
sense that the poet employs a first person
narrative stance.
 Like all MacCaig poetry, part of its success
lies in his skill of using accessible language in
an incredibly skilful and effective way.
 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.
Form and Structure cont.
 The poem is divided into five stanzas which each
deal with a specific focus:
Stanza 1 – a child’s
memory of his aunt /
main recollection is her
language – Gaelic –
which he could not
understand.
Stanza 2 – describes his
aunt and how she
seemed strange to him,
for example, barefoot or
wearing men’s boots /
his descriptions give
insights into her way of
life.
Stanza 3 – he recalls
the strange
experience of
sleeping in a box bed.
Stanza 4 – vivid
images capture
aspects of her life e.g.
carrying buckets of
water as there is no
running water.
Stanza 5 –
by the time
he learned
some
Gaelic, it
was too late
to
communica
te with his
Aunt: she
had died.
Stanza 1
She appears
to be very
extrovert
and not shy.
Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic
Very loud and very fast.
I could not answer her –
I could not understand
her.
Repetition
emphasises
MacCaig’s
helplessness.
Gaelic – a Celtic language spoken in the
highlands of Scotland
She was
different,
as Gaelic
is not a
common
language.
This poem is in free
verse which
corresponds with aunt
Julia’s eccentricity
and unpredictability.
Stanza 1
 The poem begins with a series of warmly drawn,
affectionate childhood memories.
 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.
 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.
Stanza 1
 Clarity and lucidity were qualities MacCaig constantly worked
for in his poetry and they are evident in this opening stanza with
its series of straightforward statements.
 The poem has freshness and charm which stems from the fact it
is with the eyes and ears of a child that he remembers Aunt
Julia.
 The repetition of I could not reinforces the idea of the barrier in
communication.
 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.
 Already in this vivid description we have the impression of Julia
as a dynamic, vigorous and forceful character.
Aunt Julia is
quirky and
unconventio
nal
Peat: an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation
which forms in wetlands such as bogs
Treadle: rocking lever operated by the foot to drive a
spinning wheel
She wore men’s boots
When she wore any.
- I can see her strong foot,
She is burly,
and shows a
sense of
power and
strength.
Stained with peat,
Paddling with the treadle of the spinning wheel
While her right hand drew yarn
Marvellously out of the air.
He is in awe of
her and
admires her.
Stanza 2
Yarn: continuous
twisted strand
fibre produced on
a spinning wheel.
Stanza 2
 The poet begins to create a picture of a woman who
lives a life close to the soil in this rural landscape.
 Her work is physically demanding, both out of doors
and within her house. She is often barefoot but if shod,
wears practical men's boots and the poet clearly
admires her completing these tasks with capability.
 We see 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.
Stanza 2
 The long line paddling with the treadle of the
spinning wheel serves to accentuate the
lengthiness of the spinning process and
creates a sense of movement and activity
which MacCaig also associates with his
aunt.
 In almost every description of her in the
poem she is either in motion or speaking,
emphasising the shocking silent finality of
her death in the final stanza.
Stanza 2
 As he continues to recall the spinning process, the
description of her right hand drew yarn/marvellously
out of the air conveys the air of magic or illusion about
the task which was almost entrancing for the young
boy watching.
 The 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.
Stanza 3
Hers was the only house
Where I’ve lain at night
Despite the darkness
and primitive
accommodation, he
feels secure and safe
In the absolute darkness
Of a box bed, listening to
Crickets being friendly.
Box bed: bed built into a recess in
a traditional Highland cottage,
separated from the main room by a
curtain or wooden panel.
The ‘darkness’
and friendly
crickets
contrast
No
punctuation –
shows
excitement.
Stanza 3
 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.
 Again the affection he feels for her is evident in the
decision to open this stanza with the pronoun Hers,
emphasising her significance to him.
Stanza 4
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 tea pot.
Aunt Julia combines the
strength of nature and the
security of a domestic home.
Threepennybit: old eight-sided pre-decimal coin (worth
around 1p)
He compare to a
series of metaphors –
to do with nature
and things of a home
(clothing and money)
It is a hard life, she
did not have much
money but worked
very hard.
Stanza 4
 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.
 She appears to him to be vivid, larger than life, and so connected with the
landscape itself she becomes part of it.
 The observations are those of a child, fascinated by both the curious and the
ordinary.
 In the poet's memory Julia becomes intertwined with the natural forces of wind
and rain, in the description of the winds pouring wetly/round house-ends. At the
same time he remembers her through a series of mundane domestic objects.
She was buckets/and water flouncing into them and also brown eggs, black
skirts/and a keeper of threepenny bits.
 Again the impression conveyed is of a woman in constant motion: the
transferred epithet used in the flouncing water gives a description of the
deliberate, vigorous way she moved.
Stanza 4
 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.
Stanza 5
Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic
Very loud and very fast.
By the time I had learned
It is too late by the time
he had learnt his aunties
language. He cannot
communicate with her.
A little, she lay
Silenced in the absolute black
Of a sandy grave
Death =
Darkness
At Luskentyre.
Luskentyre – tiny village with spectacular
sandy beach on the island of Harris.
Shorter lines with
more pauses for
thought. Change of
atmosphere –
disappointment and
sadness.
Stanza 5
But I hear her still, welcoming me
With a seagull’s voice
Across a hundred yards
Her words are
incomprehensible. But she
still lives through nature, as
he still hears her through
the ‘seagull’s voice’.
Of peatscrapes and lazybeds
And getting angry, getting angry
With so many questions
unanswered.
Lazybeds: traditional way of growing
crops in small patches of soil using
ridges of soil.
Both are getting angry.
Aunt Julia is angry because
he could not answer her
questions. But he is
frustrated because he could
not get to know her better.
Stanza 5
 The final stanza opens by repeating the opening lines of
the poem: Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic/very loud and very
fast.
 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 her 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.
 The tone seems almost accusatory, as if blaming death
for suffocating and stopping her voice.
Stanza 5
 This sinister, unsettling tone continues in describing the absolute
black of her grave.
 Unlike the comforting security of the absolute darkness of the box
bed in the third stanza, the subtle shift from
darkness to black conveys the frighteningly bleak void of death.
 Instead of sustaining this melancholic, maudlin tone though, the
speaker seems to challenge the finality of death in the line: But I
hear her still, welcoming me/with a seagull’s voice 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. The poem ends with the poet
imagining her: getting angry, getting angry, with so many
questions, unanswered.
Stanza 5
 The final word is left on a line of its own, serving to reinforce the speakers
enduring sense of frustration.
 The ending of the poem is somewhat ambiguous 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.
 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 suggests 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.

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