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The Summer Farm Poem Analysis Essay

To appreciate a literary work, it helps to understand the writer.  Norman MacCaig author of the poem, "Summer Farm," led a life of controversy.  Born in Scotland, he began his professional life as primary school teacher. During World War II,  MacCaig was classified as a conscientious objector but served a term in prison for refusing to fight.  Throughout his life, he was a professed pacifist. His writing career failed to advance because of his political stance and imprisonment.  Eventually, he found a place in the university setting where he became First Writer in Resident at Edinburgh University.

In his poetry, MacCaig sought precise observations, creative wit, and clarity. These attributes are found in "Summer Farm."  The poem follows a rather simple pattern:  four stanzas with two couplets per stanza.  The poet uses similes and metaphors to describe the pastoral setting of the farm on a lazy summer day with an abundance of nature. Furthermore, he uses alliteration to paint each individual scene:

...tame lightnings lie...

...Green as glass..

...dives up again into the dizzy blue.

In the first stanza,  his similes convey the images of straw lying around like idle lightning to water in horse trough the color of green grass. From there, he gives the humorous  image of nine duck waddling along in two rows.  The reader has to imagine is there a row of four and five ducks, six, and three, or what.  It is a clever way to entice the reader into the scene.

In the second stanza, again the poet uses humor when he describes a a hen staring at nothing and then she picks it up and eats it.  Wonder what it was?  Then,  the reader is given a beautiful image of a swallow free falling,  then fluttering and soaring up into the bright blue sky.

The reader is jolted awake with the introduction of the narrator (I). He is lying on the grass trying not to think about anything.  If he did think,  he seems fearful of where his thoughts would take him. 

I like, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,

Afraid of where a thought might take me... 

As he relates this, an armor faced grasshopper unfolds  its legs and spreads out.  Interestingly, a second reading implies that the grasshopper is the boy, figuratively masked to the outside world, unfolding wanting to spread his own wings.

This grasshopper with plated face

Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.

The fourth stanza finds the narrator stands waiting on time.  He has many sides or selves.  Who is the real person? He would like to look down into the farm. To him, the farm is the world,  and  he finds himself in the center of it.

The narrator refers to the metaphysical hand.  The metaphysical mind concerns itself with the explanation of nature's existence in the world. It relates to questions that cannot be answered in factual terms.  Maybe like the metaphysical world, the adolescent narrator finds himself asking the questions so many teenagers ask:

Who am I?; What is my purpose?; and Where am I going?

The teen feels that he is the center of his universe.  Even thought the narrator says that he is thinking of nothing, he able to see precise details of his world.  The most powerful lines of this poem summarize the search for himself in this detailed world:

Self under self, a pile of selves I stand...

Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.


Question set:

Explore how both poems deal with the theme of Identity.

It's hard to figure out what is meant by the word 'identity', but it can be summed up in these poems as 'thinking about the meaning of life, sense of self, life as a journey, sense of scale, proportion'.

It isn’t clear at first, how 'The Cockroach' deals with identity. This is revealed only gradually. At first, Halligan plays with proportion; the cockroach is ‘giant’ and seems to expand to fill his field of vision. Halligan is focussed on something outside of himself. Its journey as it starts to ‘pace’, ‘skirting’, to ‘trace’ then ‘jog’ seems to echo the journey of life. The mood seems fairly negative, with words like ‘dust’ echoing the words of the funeral service, with ‘rusty’ suggesting decay. The poet seems to view the cockroach from the outside fairly impassively (neutral mood) at first, but the imagery gradually darkens with words like ‘attack’ and ‘vicious crime’ - picking up on the idea of reincarnation, as the poet seems to wonder if the cockroach was a person in ‘a former life’ who behaved badly. The poet almost seems to put himself in the cockroach’s position by the end of the poem - at the volta - where he says ‘I thought I recognised myself’.

Equally, ‘Summer Farm’ focusses at first on the external world and gradually zooms into the poet. We see the detail of the farm one by one, starting with blades of ‘grass’ and ‘straws’. He hovers over the water in the ‘horse trough’, sensory details of the ‘ducks’ ‘wobbling’. This seemingly vacuous detail spins us round from a hen’s ‘eye’ up to an ‘empty sky’ then ‘falls’ and ‘dives’ again - as if the poet is delighting in throwing us about. The perspective keeps shifting, but it’s always close-focus - as if to recreate the disorienting experience of life - that we can only see one thing at a time, and our field of vision is limited.

In the third stanza, the mood becomes fearful with the word ‘afraid’, and we go into the poet’s point of view. He says he’s afraid of ‘where a thought might take me’ - into ‘space’. This idea of space - of nothingness, is terrifying, the opposite of close focus - it’s so zoomed out that we become insignificant. He considers the nature of ‘self’ through repetition, ‘self’ is buried, ‘under’ self ‘threaded on time’. The scale shifts to a cosmic one, creating an overwhelming effect: identity is under threat. He creates a picture of the farm as unreal, as if he’s questioning the validity or reality of his own existence.
In conclusion, both poems take a challenging, rather troubled view of identity. Halligan compares himself to a cockroach, suggesting darkly that he may have committed a ‘vicious crime’, and he gains self-awareness; he ‘recognised’ himself in the cockroach. MacCaig uses the scale of the universe - in space and time - to show human insignicance, but also shows us his power as a poet to create something that seems real but unreal at the same time. He’s tiny, in the centre of the farm, but also huge: he can ‘lift the farm like a lid.’

This is a brief essay, to which you could add plenty more.

+ Get more on how to analyse poetry here, get model essays by poet here or click here for Cambridge IGCSE only
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Use the ideas but please don't just copy and hand it in. Teachers, feel free to use this with the attribution: (c)2013 Melanie Kendry www.ateacherwrites.com  If you have your own blog, please link, don't copy. Thanks!

The author, Melanie Kendry, is an Oxford graduate, outstanding-rated English Language and Literature teacher and of ages 10-18 in the British education system. In 2012, she was nominated for Pearson's Teaching Awards. As a private tutor, she raises grades often from C to A. Her writing is also featured in The Huffington Post. She offers private tuition in the Haywards Heath area, West Sussex.                                                                                  

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