Relevant Background | Summary | Themes | Style
- Thomas Kinsella is a well-educated Dublin man.
- He worked in the Civil Service before he gave it up and became a full-time poet and lecturer at the age of thirty-seven.
- Kinsella developed a connection with rural Wexford through his wife. In this poem. he uses a rural setting to reflect on unpleasant change in his appearance.
- A lot of Kinsella’s poems are translations from Irish.
- Many other poems, like this one, deal with philosophical questions. In this poem, he explores his shock at aging and decay. He looks into a mirror and faces an unwelcome truth about himself.
The first stanza contains a description of a winter’s dawn in a cold country house. The house is beside a dug garden. The poet is aware of the mixed smells of clay and stale bedroom air. As dawn occurs, the lamplight fades. He interrupts dressing himself to shave. He begins to daydream about some favourite image, maybe a sexual fantasy. Then he catches a disturbing reflection of himself in the mirror. As he dries himself with a towel, he notices his tired looking eye, his twisted mouth. He is shocked and his eye holds his gaze, ‘riveted’.
In the second stanza, Kinsella begins to think. He realises he has to learn something, to face some new fact about himself. Just as the garden outside the room faces renewed growth after the decay of winter, the poet has some spiritual growing up to do. He sees the signs of his physical decay. He imagines a spiritual mirror in his soul. He examines it and concludes that his youth has passed. He is about thirty-three, the age of Christ at his peak, when Christ suffered on the cross. Kinsella is concerned that he hasn’t reached human perfection and never will.
Kinsella notices how the gardener has cut branches off the fruit trees in the garden. This rough pruning of the old trees caused them suffering. They had to endure it. It probably reminds Kinsella of the crucifixion of Christ. But the trees are awakened, probably with buds. They were hacked, in order to provide better fruit. Christ’s suffering also had positive meaning. Kinsella imagines that human aging is like this rough pruning of the trees. He wonders if human suffering can have any positive meaning. Christ’s suffering saves souls and the fruit trees’ suffering leads to a good harvest. He asks how human flesh can avoid shivering in fear, since it is more brutally assaulted by time, ‘span for span’, than the fruit trees by the gardener. With a sour taste in his mouth, Kinsella tries to compose himself as he folds his towel. He is no longer young. Unlike the trees, he is not physically renewable. However, he accepts his harsh destiny with dignity, ‘grace’. Why? Because he is human and will face his aging with human defiance. Perhaps he will experience a spiritual growth in order to make up for the loss of physical beauty and the pain of aging.
Kinsella regards nature as a continual cycle of decay and renewal: ‘crumbling place of growth’. Fruit trees are hacked clean to bear fruit, ‘for better bearing’.
Kinsella realises that his youth is over and that his physical appearance is losing whatever beauty it had: ‘dry-down turning mouth’. He accepts that he is not renewable in a physical sense.
- Spiritual growth
Kinsella looks for human dignity as a replacement for handsome features. As he matures, his suffering will help him to develop ‘grace’ and ‘dignity’.
Kinsella realises vanity is pointless, as he cannot avoid the negative impact of time on his appearance: ‘a dark exhausted eye’.
- Personal reflection
Outward appearance is not as important as inner knowledge. Kinsella develops a thinking inner self, with a mirror in his soul.
Suffering is part of growth. The fruit trees suffer for better bearing. Christ suffered to fulfil his task of saving humanity from sin. Kinsella suffers aging in order to begin spiritual growth. Aging leads to maturity: ‘it is time to learn’.
Metaphor: The mirror is used as a metaphor for personal reflection or thinking in the second stanza: ‘mirror of my soul’. This is a metaphor for the thinking process.
Personification: ‘awakening trees…stand defaced suffering’
Contrast: The trees suffer mutilation for better fruit and are renewed. Human beings suffer the mutilation of aging without any physical gain. Suffering does not renew man physically. Whereas the trees grow physically after suffering, humans grow spiritually after suffering.
Pun: The word ‘defaced’ is a dramatic pun that echoes the shaving process.
Tone: The tone is dark and depressing in the first stanza. There is also a note of shock in this stanza. The tone becomes questioning and thoughtful in the second stanza. Then the tone becomes self-pitying. Finally, it changes to dignified and defiant: ‘but man’.
Atmosphere: The language of the poem creates a mood of rot and decay, ‘scent of must and rain’. There is a continuing feeling of incompleteness, of being in a half state: ‘fading lamp’, ‘half-dressed’, ‘and not made whole’. A sense of suffering and pain dominates the final stanza.
Paradox [apparent contradiction]: The paradox in line nine shows the poet’s confusion and conflicting emotions: ‘untiring, crumbling place of growth’. ‘Growth’ contradicts ‘crumbling’ and the similar earlier word ‘decay’.
Religious Allusion: Kinsella uses a reference [allusion] to Christ to emphasise the suffering that goes with aging. The reference to Christ also brings in the idea that suffering has a positive purpose. This positive purpose is shown by the ideas that the trees will bear fruit and that the poet will mature spiritually, with dignity.
Alliteration: The repeated ‘d’ sound in the first stanza is effective in creating a depressing atmosphere: ‘dark trees, dry bedroom air’, ‘dry downturning’. The ‘b’ in ‘better bearing’ strengthens the idea of growing fruit.
Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sound]: ‘S’ repetition strengthens the impression of decay in the first stanza: ‘dawns with sense of must’.