Churning Day: Heaney. An analysis.

Another of the poems in the collection which considers the aging process as a conflict between innocence and experience, ultimately resulting in an epiphany as the older Heaney recognises the mundanity of something hitherto regarded as bordering on the magical is Churning Day:

A thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast,
hardened gradually on top of the four crocks
that stood, large pottery bombs, in the small pantry.
After the hot brewery of gland, cud and udder,
cool porous earthenware fermented the buttermilk
for churning day, when the hooped churn was scoured
with plumping kettles and the busy scrubber
echoed daintily on the seasoned wood.
It stood then, purified, on the flagged kitchen floor.

Out came the four crocks, spilled their heavy lip
of cream, their white insides, into the sterile churn.
The staff, like a great whisky muddler fashioned
in deal wood, was plunged in, the lid fitted.
My mother took first turn, set up rhythms
that slugged and thumped for hours. Arms ached.
Hands blistered. Cheeks and clothes were spattered

with flabby milk.

Where finally gold flecks
began to dance. They poured hot water then,
sterilized a birchwood-bowl
and little corrugated butter-spades.
Their short stroke quickened, suddenly
a yellow curd was weighting the churned up white,
heavy and rich, coagulated sunlight
that they fished, dripping, in a wide tin strainer,
heaped up like gilded gravel in the bowl.

The house would stink long after churning day,
acrid as a sulphur mine. The empty crocks
were ranged along the wall again, the butter
in soft printed slabs was piled on pantry shelves.
And in the house we moved with gravid ease,
our brains turned crystals full of clean deal churns,
the plash and gurgle of the sour-breathed milk,
the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.

This poem reflects Heaney’s memory of growing up in the family farm and witnessing the buttermaking process -a regular part of the life of the farm. The poem uses a range of imagery -the sounds and smalls of the farm are clear in the writing, as is a small boy’s wonder and fear at the process, for this is one of the poems laden with military imagery – the ‘pottery bombs’ for example, which permeates many poems in this collection – Trout, Advancement of Learning, Digging. In these pre-Troubles poems Heaney is on record as suggesting such imagery was derived from the relative proximity of WW2 and the constant television programmes dedicated to such things, yet a Catholic growing up in Protestant Northern Ireland cannot have been unaware of the potential for violence inherent in the relative peace of rural Co. Derry. No doubt the bombs refers both to the potential danger of explosion as the milk fermented within as well as the distinctive shape of the vessels themselves.

Strucuturally the poem comes close to free-verse in the lack of a clear rhythmic pattern, which is not to say lines are devoid of their own strong rhythmic tread, as in the opening of the second stanza when the crocks emerge like characters in Disney’s Fantasia. The march of the crocks can be scanned thus: ‘Out came/ the four/ crocks, spilled/ their heav/y lip’ a mixture of spondees and Iambs recreating the heavy labour emphasised by the caesura in the middle of the third foot, as though resting from the exertion. Elsewhere, Heaney plays with a half line at the mid-point, to draw attention to the miraculous moment when the ‘flabby milk’ becomes ‘gold flecks’ which began to dance for joy and the whole family breathe again, as the butter becomes reality. For butter really is seen as a life-giving element. It is ‘coagulated sunlight’ a metaphor which juxtaposes the negative and positive but focuses on the wonder of the butter, stirred by a ‘whisky muddler’ – apt since whisky is also the ‘water of life’.

Heaney opens by linking the milk in the churns with the landscape, establishing a typical sense of beign derived from the very land itself – the crust is reminiscent of ‘limestone rough cast’ a building material and in contrast to the metaphorical machinery which produced the milk in the first place. The wonderfully alliterative ‘brewery of gland, cud and udder’ represents a cow and is the voice of the older man who can see past the affection which might be felt for such animals to their practical purpose – the voice of the speaker in ‘the Early Purges’ who can countenance the death of the innocents as a necessary part of rural life.

The process is brought to life by alliteration and imagery as the poem continues. Onomatopoieia is used as the ‘plumping’ kettles – giving both sound and shape – are contrasted with the light and speedy ‘busy scrubber’, again giving a clear idea of the sounds heard emanating from within. In contrast again, the battalion of crocks are poured into a huge churn, and the work required is emphasised in a series of short sentences split across lines 14-17. The verbs are effortful – thumped, ached’ and the stops seem to signify the need for pauses to catch ones breath in this laboursome process which has until now been told in long, flowing sentences of description.

The actual buttermaking is again a thing of contrast – the milk is ‘flabby’ and is vomited forth from the ‘white insides’ of the crocks into a newly sterile, indeed, ‘purified’ churn, as though prepared for a religious ceremony. As Heaney recalls his mother working valiantly, he is rewarded with a thing of wonder. Across the split half lines, the miracle takes place. The closeness of the poet’s mother is replaced by a more distant third person plural as the boy is shut out of the ritual on a personal level, much as he is prevented from indulging his love of wells in Personal Helicon. Still the imagery of religion continues – a ‘birchwood’ bowl is sterilized ready for the next stage. Heaney is beautifully precise in his memory and his love of the rural life emerges in the memory of specific woods used in elements of the ritual activity. The line of perfect’ nimble iambic pentameter at ‘and little corrugated butter spades’ serves to highlight the rhythm of this next step in the process – light work, requiring delicate treatment-  leading to the emergence of the ‘gilded gravel’, the simile likening this discovery to prospectors panning for gold.


However, after this wonder, reality bites. The final stanza sees an older voice recognising the mundanity of the action and the unpleasant by-product – the smell. Heaney places the surprisingly harsh verb ‘stink’ as a stressed syllable in a line of iambic pentameter, as though suddenly realising the truth and accentuating it through the glottal attack on the trochee which opens the next line – ‘acrid’. No longer is there magic here, but rather a sense of ennui. The crocks have lost their military power and are empty, the rhythm stressing this as the lines pick up extra syllables as they flow into each other, suggesting the abundance now available in the pantry. Heaney now recalls the aftermath as part of the facilitators rather than as an outsider looking in – ‘we moved with gravid ease’ allows him to join the whole family in a sense of tired relaxation, but also with an awareness of ‘gravid’ meaning both carrying a weighty meaning and the state of being heavily pregnant. Perhaps Heany is getting a the sense of achievement tangible in completing such an arduous yet, natural task. There is little magic left – more onomatopoieia conveys the sounds of the liquid in the ‘plash and gurgle’ of milk which is now seen as sour-breathed and has lost the purity of earlier in the poem. We are left with the sound of butter-shaping. Yet now the ‘gold flecks’ and coagulated sunlight’ are seen merely as ‘wet lumps’.

Magic is a thing of the innocent. Children wonder at the mundane. Heaney explores this here, he revels in the memory of the events and recalls his mother working like some master magician, much in the same way as he reveres his father and grand-father in Digging. However, he leaves the poem rooted in the reality of an older, more experienced man. He has grown up.