Analysis of Little Boy Crying – Mervyn Morris
Your mouth contorting in brief spite and hurt,
The child’s mouth ‘CONTORTS.’ This is a powerful word which connotes an unnatural or an extreme change in the form. The word is visually potent. Spite and hurt are the two emotions that accompany the slap – this poem is about the emotional complexity of the relationship between the father and son. The father inflicts pain on the child to discipline him – this physical pain causes a deep emotional impact on the child who is obviously shocked, angry and rather confused. He has been rejected by the person whom he adores.
Your laugh metamorphosed into howls,
The juxtaposition of Laugh and Howls signify the abruptness of the incident and the change that came over the child’s countenance. The auditory imagery of laughs is replaced by howls. The word ‘metamorphosed’ is also a very strong word with connotations of significant changes in the structure of the body – larvae metamorphoses into a butterfly. This is also followed by changes in their behaviour. It is an identity-altering, life-changing transformation. As a visual imagery, it gives a clear picture of how the facial expressions of the child gradually changes. In keeping with the ‘metamorphosis,’ the form which was relaxed has become ‘tight, with three-year-old frustration.’ The first four lines are about the complete transformation of the energy in the situation – a moment ago they were playing, laughing and relaxed. Suddenly, with a snap and a slap, the child’s whole body language and behaviour is shaken.
The child begins to cry: ‘bright eyes// swimming tears, splashing your bare feet.’ Bright eyes connote the sparkle and liveliness in the child; the wonder in his eyes. These lines offer strong visual imagery, capturing the intensity the child’s emotions and how he is deeply affected by the slap.
These three lines use Anaphora, which is the repetition at the beginning of the line. It creates rhythm in the poem and reflects the suddenness of the changes that befalls the child. They focus on the ‘mouth, laughter and frame.’
The last two lines of the first stanza point out the complexity of emotions that the child is capable of observing. He anticipates guilt or sorrow from the father. Even at the age of three, the poet observes how the child is such an emotionally complex and aware human being. This also indicates how parental reactions, involvement, attention are crucial to the wholesome growth of a child – especially their psychological growth as a sound individual. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0 Still Face Experiment // https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aymvX-OrlS0 – The Impact of Early Emotional Neglect)
The last three words of the stanza ‘quick slap struck,’ captures the onomatopoeic effect of the slap – the weight, speed and the effect of the impact is emphasized.
The ogre towers above you, that grim giant,
Empty of feeling, a colossal cruel
The parent is compared to an ogre. This metaphor connotes the unpleasantness and the threat that he suddenly seems to pose in the eyes of the child. Stanza 1 is written from the perspective of the parent – we observe the child along with the parent. Stanza 2 is written from the perspective of the child – the way he/she sees the parent after the slap. When imagining an ogre, don’t imagine Shrek. He is too humanized in the movie and too cute. According to Wikipedia, ‘An ogre (feminine: ogress) is a legendary monster usually depicted as a large, hideous, man-like being that eats ordinary human beings, especially infants and children.’ So, the child displays intense loathing towards him. ‘Towers above you,’ is a strong visual image which connotes the authority that the parent has over the child. He is much more physically powerful, and the helplessness and the fear of the child is captured through this line. The child sees the parent as a ‘grim giant // empty of feeling, a colossal cruel.’ The child does not understand that the parent is trying to discipline him. He thinks that he has been rejected. This sudden emotional confusion completely shatters the child’s perception of the parent as a loving, kind and caring father. These perceptions are replaced by a monstrous image; someone who has no emotions – cruel and callous. The phrase ‘colossal cruel’ uses alliteration for emphasis and the harshness of the syllables reflects the harshness the child attributes to the parent.
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 speaker admits that the parent will soon be the victim – meaning that he is the one who will suffer. The poet flips the tale – the roles are reversed. This is rather an authoritarian act because it is the speaker who writes from the perspective of the parent, and therefore has control of the narrative. When the speaker is identified as the victim, the child’s victimhood is rather slighted. It is as if indicating that the child benefits out of this and the speaker receives all the losses out of this. But, according to the speaker, the parent sees himself as a victim because the reality is much more complex than the limited perception of the child offers.
When the speaker says ‘You hate him,’ that is a repetition of the sentiment of anger because the first line of the poem says ‘spite.’ These are strong words of emotions. Very impactful and with long-term effects. The speaker imagines the child’s imagining of capturing/torturing the ogre – the parent.
It is in the third stanza that the parent/speaker mentions his dilemma. He loves the child, which is why he wants to discipline him. But, his love will be interpreted as exactly the opposite; absence of love, or anger, or rejection. During the moments of disciplining, the parent has to make a sacrifice. At the risk of being perceived as a monster, he fulfills his task of disciplining the child – out of love. It is his inability to explain to the child about this reality which creates this misunderstanding. The child is yet too small to understand – You cannot understand, not yet. The speaker acknowledges and hopes that someday the child will grow up and realize the father’s love in every slap. Perhaps when the child becomes a parent.
The hurt your easy tears can scald him with
The meaning of scald is to ‘injure with very hot liquid or steam.’ This line captures the pain that the father experiences. This is the reversal of the idea of victim in the poem – usually we understand the child to be the victim of such a violent form of punishment which forces him to contort his mouth. But the speaker insists that even though his face is masked with anger, beneath the veneer of grimness, he hurts more than the boy does. The juxtaposition of the pain felt by both parties shows the intensity of the moment. The tears are the manifestation of the boy’s pain – but it is also the source of pain for the father.
The boy fails to see the pain the father endures. He doesn’t see the trembling inside his heart, to see his tears. The line ‘wavering hidden behind that mask’ suggests the idea that this anger/grimness the father displays is a performance – something designed to convey the seriousness of the punishment to the child.
Rather than expecting the boys love, the father strictly disciplines him for the boy’s own benefit. It is portrayed as a selfless act of love.
‘This fierce man’ connotes the humanness of this previously perceived ogre. He seems fierce, he appears grim – but he is just another man; father who ‘longs’ to lift you. Even though the father is able to restore momentary joy by forgiving the child and embracing him and playing with him, the father rather looks to secure the future of the child. The father is like a farmer, plowing the land, preparing the life of the child like a field to bear a heavy and fruitful harvest. And he reminds himself almost: Rain, perhaps standing for grace, love and acceptance, must be given a healthy value rather than using it without wisdom. While discipline sows the seeds of principles and character, the rains of grace and love will be even more effective when it is not taken for granted.
Kevin Dilhan Perera
The Words Academy