Gratitude in Regret: An Example in Three Poems (Part 3)

Eyoh Etim

In the part three of Gratitude in Regret, I am analysing Mervyn Morris’ ‘Little Boy Crying’ to illustrate how children often think that their disciplinarian-parents are wicked, only to grow up to be grateful to these parents for having trained them in the right way. Mervyn Morris is a Jamaican poet born in 1937 and currently professor emeritus at the University of West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. ‘Little Boy Crying’ is one of Morris’ best known poems. The poem is organised in four stanzas. Stanza one has seven lines, stanzas two and three are made up of six lines each, while the fourth stanza is a monostich, a one-line stanza. The poem is written in run-on-lines and is cast in free verse.

The poem’s subject matter is the misinterpretation of parental discipline by children. In the poem, a child is punished for playing in the rain when he shouldn’t. The poet captures the mind of the child in terms of how he reacts to the parent and the act of discipline itself. The story in the poem is told using the second person narrative viewpoint. The first stanza goes thus: ‘Your mouth in brief spite and hurt,/your laughter metamorphosed into howls,/your frame so recently relaxed now tight/with three-year-old frustration, your bright eyes/swimming tears, splashing your bare feet,/you stand there angling for a moment’s hint/of guilt or sorrow for the quick slap struck.’

It is seen in the first stanza that the narrator or persona deploys the descriptive approach in discoursing the boy’s reaction to parental discipline and punishment. The word ‘spite’ indicates the boy’s sudden dislike for the father immediately after being punished. The word ‘hurt’ depicts the boy as at once offended and victimised. The second person possessive pronoun, ‘your’, signals the narrative viewpoint and also constitutes an anaphora in the first stanza, as it forms the initial word in the first three lines of the stanza.

The second line describes the proverbial thin line that separates joy and sorrow, laughter and cry. It is apparent that shortly before being punished, the little boy was playing and laughing. The device of contrast is deployed to describe these two modes of human life in the stanza. For instance, in the third line, the narrator juxtaposes ‘relaxed’ and ‘tight’ in describing the hero’s ‘frame’. The line also has an instance of alliteration in the expression ‘recently relaxed’. The fourth stanza provides information on the young hero’s age. He is just three years old. He is supposed to be happy, but his joy is being frustrated by his father’s highhandedness, or so he perceives it. The expression ‘bright eyes’ is an example of visual imagery.

The expression ‘swimming tears’ in the fifth line is hyperbolic and is used to describe the hero’s eyes and the fact that he is crying profusely after being punished. It is an instance of visual imagery in the poem. The word ‘splashing’ has an onomatopoeic quality and constitutes auditory imagery, as it describes how the tears shed by the boy drop on his ‘bare feet’, which in itself serves as visual imagery and symbolises the boy’s ignorance and immaturity. In the final lines of the first stanza, the little boy wants or wishes for the father to regret his action as the boy apparently feels that the punishment is unjustified. The expression ‘slap struck’ is an example of alliteration and it is used to register the acoustic import of the punishment meted out to the boy.

The second stanza of the poem reads: ‘The ogre towers above you, that grim giant,/empty of the feeling, a colossal cruel,/soon victim of the tale’s conclusion, dead/at last. You hate him, you imagine/chopping clean the tree he’s scrambling down/or plotting deeper pits to trap him in.’ The poem becomes more psychologically engaging in the second stanza. The boy imagines the father to be a monster, ‘an ogre’, which together with the word ‘towers’ exemplifies visual imagery. ‘Ogre’ also serves as a metaphor for the boy’s father. It is also a symbolic cultural/literary allusion to existing works that present physically ugly creatures as humane in the heart, mind and soul, though usually thought otherwise by those who do not understand them.

 The boy also imagines the father as a ‘grim giant’. This expression is a metaphor and is an example of visual imagery in the poem. The boy imagines the father in these terms because he no longer sees him as human. This is captured in the expression ‘empty of feeling’ in the second line of the second stanza. That which lacks human feelings lacks humanity. There is an instance of alliteration in the expression ‘colossal cruel’, another metaphoric expression which emphaises the height of maltreatment that the boy feels.

The boy is so angry with the father that he imagines all the possible harms that could befall him. In his mind, he turns the father into a victim and wishes him to experience the capital punishment. In other words, he wishes the father to die. This is the extent to which the boy hates his father for punishing him. He imagines cutting down a tree while his father is climbing it. He also imagines digging pits for the father to fall into.

The style of the third stanza follows the hypotactic structure of the previous stanzas. In this stanza, the narrator reports on the boy’s ignorance: ‘You cannot understand yet, not yet’. This stanza, among other things, reveals that the boy’s father is not cruel as the boy would want to persuade himself to believe. It is revealed that the father is not comfortable with punishing the boy; neither does he take pleasure in doing so. He disciplines him out of duty and a sense of responsibility. The idea is to turn the boy into a better member of society when he grows up. But for this to happen, the boy has to learn some vital lessons of life even if it will take certain disciplinary measures for this goal to be realised.

The words of the narrator reveal that the father is hurt by the boy’s tears: ‘your easy tears can scald him’. This is an indication that the father loves the boy dearly, making the task of punishing him a very difficult one. The word ‘scald’ is an instance of tactile imagery. The word ‘wavering’ used in the third line of the third stanza is suggestive of the father’s doubt and indecision which depicts the soft spot or weakness and love that the father has for the boy. The word ‘mask’ in the same line refers to the father’s stern expression which he uses to instill discipline in the boy. Beneath this mask is a man who deeply loves his son. This is seen in the fourth line when the narrator states: ‘This fierce man longs to lift you, curb your sadness’. ‘Piggy-back’ and ‘bully-fight’ must be the games father and son usually play together when there is no tension in the home. The father would like to play these games at the moment to appease the boy, but he does not want to ‘ruin the lessons’ that the boy ought to learn. The lesson itself is illustrated in the final monostich of the poem: ‘You must not make a plaything of the rain’.

This poem constitutes gratitude in regret because it is written retrospectively to account for those situations in life where children grow up to appreciate the disciplinary measures taken by their parents to help mould them into better members of society.   

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