Learning from Poetry: How Rosemary Dobson’s ‘Three Fates’ Warns Us to Be Careful of Who and Where We Go for Help

One of Australia’s most celebrated poets, Rosemary Dobson was born in 1920 and died in 2012. In this blog, I am interested in the lessons that one of her poems, ‘Three Fates’, teaches about asking for help and the consequences of asking for help from the wrong sources. At first, it would sound absurd to persuade anyone about not asking for help at all. Asking for help seems the most innocent thing to do, especially in a world full of helpless situations, where forces beyond the individual act against people’s interest, resulting in poverty, disease, hunger and homelessness, which are not necessarily caused by the individual. However, it should be noted that there are benevolent and malevolent forces in nature. Both are willing to grant your requests for life, power, wealth and fame. But there are terms, conditions and consequences attached depending on which of the two forces you ask. If you ask for help from the benevolent forces, you might have to be patient, work hard and wait for the rewards at the appropriate and appointed time. At other times, the help might never come and you might have to accept God’s will, with the knowledge that we cannot possibly have everything or that we were not meant to have that particular request or achievement.

Sadly enough, not many can wait on the good forces. It often seems to these ones that their request takes too long to be granted. They find it hard to bear the shame and mockery from society. They cannot bear to think that their friends and age mates have gone on to achieve greater things while they seem to perpetually rot in mediocrity and want. What these people fail to understand is that everything and everyone has their own time and timing. So they dare all the consequences and approach evil forces to ask for help. But then there are consequences. There is a popular saying that the devil does give, but that he takes more than he gives.

What I have stated above applies in parts to Dobson’s ‘Three Fates’. ‘Three Fates’ is a narrative poem. It tells the story of a man who is about to drown in a river where he has gone a-fishing. Unable to save himself, he calls for help from ‘the three sisters’. The three sisters constitute a classical allusion in the poem. They are drawn from Greek mythology and are synonymous with the poem’s title. The three fates or the three sisters are Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos. They are goddesses in Greek mythology and are known to determine human destiny. They represent, respectively, the past, the present and the future. The implication of this is that these goddesses control life, time and death. Thus, by invoking these characters, the poem’s central character and hero succeeds in stopping time against himself. He has called on the curse of eternity against himself. And it is wrong for that which was created to be mortal to live eternally.

Dobson’s ‘Three Fates’ is rendered in five stanzas. Each stanza comprises three lines. Thus, the poem is written in tercets. It is also written in free verse as the poem has neither metre nor rhyme. The stanzas make use of mostly end-stopped-lines. This means that each line is complete on its own. Of course, this is only incidental in the poem. The first stanza reads: ‘At the instance of drowning he invoked the three sisters. /It was a mistake, an aberration, to cry out for/Life everlasting’.

 First of all, it should be stated that ‘Three Fates’ is a didactic poem. A didactic poem teaches moral lessons. Thus, the first lesson we learn from this poem is that there is nothing wrong in asking for help. We all exist in this world to help one another. God Himself admonishes us to call on Him in times of trouble and He would answer us. The disciples of Jesus asked Him for help when a storm arose while they were at sea. Thus, the persona is not wrong in asking for help.

The second lesson we should learn from this poem is that the source of our help is just as important as the help we are seeking. Some people have sought help from the occult and secret societies and have lived to regret it. Some have sought help from witch doctors, demons and other diabolical sources. They have lived the rest of their life in regret. It is better to request help from God and wait for His will to be done than take rash actions because we are desperate. If God says yes, we take it with gratitude. If He says no, we accept it in good faith and with gratitude because God knows everything about us. He knows what we need and what we do not need. He also knows if a particular thing that we desire will bring us good or evil in the long run. A wise person once said that if God says no to what we want, it means He has something better in store. Missing out on one thing does not mean the end of the world for us.

Within the context of ‘Three Fates’, the hero chooses to call on the supernatural forces that are responsible for everlasting life. Note how the narrator of the poem tags this choice ‘a mistake’ and ‘an aberration’. In the second stanza, the hero’s request is instantly granted. This is seen in the simile: ‘He came up like a cork’. The expression also constitutes alliteration as can be seen in the repetition of the voiceless velar plosive in ‘came’ and ‘cork’. The miraculous manner in which the hero of the poem is saved from drowning shows that there are invisible and supernatural forces at work in the poem. He does not only emerge from the water, he also returns to the bank of the river in the same strange manner. But once he gets to the riverbank, he begins to live his life in reverse. This is the consequence of asking for help from the wrong sources. The persona reports of our hero that he ‘put on his clothes in reverse order’ and ‘returned to the house’. The rest of the poem is devoted to the dramatisation of the agonies and pains that this survivor has to go through simply because he asked for help from the wrong sources.

The third stanza reads: ‘He suffered the enormous agonies of passion/Writing poems from the end backwards,/Brushing away tears that had not yet fallen’. The use of the present participles, ‘writing’ and ‘brushing’, serves to emphasise the repeated and continuous nature of the accursed actions in the man’s life. They also emphasise motion and time in the poem. He sees his tears and can even wipe them away before they present themselves. The persona now lives in a completely different or new reality. As it is depicted in the fourth stanza, the hero now lives his life in reverse order. For instance, his day begins at night and ends in the morning. His love life equally occurs in reverse order. His lover grows younger and disappears instead of growing older and dying.

It is in the final stanza that the absurdity and the insanity of these actions are illustrated in terms of their repetitiveness. It is then realised that the hero of the poem is cursed to live this way forever. Everything is likely to be repeated in the same order for eternity. This absurd cycle has not also been spared the poetic art itself, as the reader soon realises that the end of the poem is actually its beginning. You should find and read the complete poem from the last stanza to the first and note the surprising effect it would have on you.

Let me leave you with a question or two. Is it fair for anyone to want to live forever? If you were to live forever, what would you spend all that time doing?

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!