Pre-release Poems AQA English 2011 Specification B - Aunt Julia, Memories, Late Winter Months

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Aunt Julia ­ Norman MacCaig
The poet recalls the remote Highland culture of his Aunt, whom he knew before he had learned to
speak any Gaelic: `By the time I had learned/ a little, she lay/ silenced...' The theme of the poem is
lack of communication ­ neither can speak to the other, and now she is dead there is no possibility of
further communication ­ so his memories of her are all of physical things which reflect the simple and
remote Gaelic culture in which she lived; there is a sense of regret at the end of the poem that he has
never had a conversation with her. Aunt Julia herself seems to have been frustrated because she
could not communicate with her nephew: `getting angry, getting angry / with so many questions
Each stanza, like a paragraph in this unrhymed poem, deals with a different aspect of his memory of
her. The first stanza pinpoints this lack of communication: `I could not answer her ­ /I could not
understand her'. The structure of the two lines is identical, merely changing one verb for another
(`understand' for `answer'), emphasizing this crucial gap in understanding as though no amount of
repetition will bridge the communication gap. His Aunt's speech therefore is no more than a physical
impression ­ `loud' and `fast'. This statement is repeated at the end of the poem, again reminding
the reader of the theme and its sad conclusion ­ by the time he had learned something, it was too
Aunt Julia's culture is a poor one, based on the life of a crofter. She goes barefoot, `I can see her
strong foot, stained with peat, paddling the treadle of the spinning wheel...' and her only boots
seem to be `men's boots', which she has taken over from some man in her family. She saves
`threepennybits in a teapot'. (A threepence is 1 ¼ p today, but more in Julia's time!) She cuts turf for
her fire from `peatscrapes' (suggesting shallow cuts in the peat) and grows potatoes in shallow beds
`lazybeds'. She spins wool or flax to make thread to turn into garments with an old fashioned spinning
wheel; nevertheless, to the boy the thread appears almost magically from her fingers: `her right
hand drew yarn / marvellously out of the air' and this gives her a mythical quality.
The world she lives in is remote ­ at night there is `absolute darkness' in his `box bed' ­ this bed
would be completely enclosed all round, to keep out the draughts, and would have a door, or shutter
in it so that the boy could get in and out. The only sound he remembers is that of the `crickets being
friendly'. The adverb gives the experience a comforting feel ­ he has little insect companions in the
darkness and is not alone, and the word `cricket' itself suggests the ticking sound that the insects
make. The image foreshadows the `absolute black' of Aunt Julia's grave at the end, but is contrasted
with it: Aunt Julia is no longer at home, but buried in `a sandy grave / at Luskentyre', alone.
The fourth stanza uses metaphor to identify Julia with her simple and energetic world: `She was
buckets/ and water flouncing into them. She was winds.... She was brown eggs...' The present
participles `flouncing' `pouring' both convey a continuous energy, and the alliteration of `was winds
pouring wetly' emphasises the weather of the Highlands ­ changeable and rainy. She is also closely
identified with the natural world: she has `a seagull's voice' - this suggests a high scream, but it is a
welcoming sound that comes to him across her smallholding, although the last repetitions `getting
angry, getting angry' return to the idea of her frustration at the lack of communication with him and
the questions `unanswered'. Perhaps in the last word of the poem the poet now suggests that his
own questions that he would like to have asked will never be answered by her.

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Techniques: As well as repetition, (which gives an impression of simplicity as well as emphasising
key ideas), and metaphor, the poet uses visual rhyme (boots and foot) and assonance (peat...
wheel; yarn... marvellously; flounce... brown; round house; seagull's....peatscrapes). Alliteration
also links images and ideas: brown eggs, black skirts (colour); learned a little she lay...Luskentyre;
Hers was the only house...; strong...stained.…read more

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­ a statement about memories. He has used the power of his own memory to bring alive for
his readers a world which is vanished, but can be conjured up very easily.
Techniques: Mukherjee uses assonance very effectively in the poem, which is set out as though
someone is speaking, each line devoted to a different aspect of his recollections. The first sounds are
short `i' sounds `children' `listened' `crickets' ­ a short repeated little sound perhaps recalling insects.…read more

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­ it is totally impossible to see anything. `Silence' is one whole
line ­ again dramatic. `Tears on a pillow' now remind the fosterchild of crying for the fosterfather
who might be lost, although the reader is still not told who it is that the child is waiting for.
`Fosterparents' played an important role in ancient Saxon and Norse cultures, and this is a glimpse of
an older world.
The third stanza again beginning `And do you remember...…read more


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