Jane Hirshfield's "This Morning Essay

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Jane Hirshfield's "This Morning I Wanted Four Legs" is a playful poem that imagines the poet's mild dissatisfaction with the human condition. Only slightly longer than a sonnet, Hirshfield's poem picks up a semi-facetious idea and views it from several angles before offering a surprising metaphorical twist at the conclusion. I propose to perform a close reading of Hirshfield's "This Morning I Wanted Four Legs" in order to examine how its use of rhetorical devices, metaphor, and wordplay establishes the ultimate meaning of the poem, a lighthearted examine of what it means to be human by imagining what it would mean to be something different.

Hirshfield's poem is relatively brief: it is written in fifteen lines of vers libre, with varying line lengths but without any of the shocking or disjunctive enjambement that vers libre can frequently employ. Instead, her lines in this poem tend to be end-stopped or offer a brief caesura at a natural turn of phrasing within the language. To examine the poem more closely, it is necessary to quote it in full:

This Morning I Wanted Four Legs

Nothing on two legs weighs much, or can.

An elephant, a donkey, even a cookstove those legs, a person could stand on.

Two legs pitch you forward.

Two legs tire.

They look for another two legs to be with, to move one set forward to music while letting the other move back.

They want to carve into a tree trunk:

2 gether 4 ever.

Nothing on two legs can bark, can whinny or chuff.

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Tonight, though, everything's different.

Tonight I want wheels. (34)

Essay on Jane Hirshfield's "This Morning I Assignment

To examine the rhetorical devices employed in the poem, we must begin with the title. In an unusual move, Hirshfield's title is not descriptive but instead reads almost like the first line of the poem itself: it expresses the basic thought which is more fully examined in the body of the poem. The title here may sound like a joke: "This Morning I Wanted Four Legs." This may sound like it is going to be some kind of metaphorical joke or play on words -- perhaps the poem that follows would describe going that morning to a restaurant and ordering four eggs for breakfast, where the waitress mistakes "eggs" for "legs" -- but instead Hirshfield shows us that the thought was quite straightforward, if somewhat odd. Human beings have two legs, but the poet in the morning found herself wishing that she had four instead of two. The first pair of lines seems to suggest the initial reason for the thought: the fact that two legs feel like they cannot support the weight of a human body very well. "Nothing on two legs weighs much, / or can." This is obviously not literally true -- a Tyrannosaurus Rex traveled on two legs, and weighed quite a bit -- but the real point here is that two legs cannot support as much weight as something with four legs, as we learn in the next pair of lines. "An elephant, a donkey, even a cookstove -- / those legs, a person could stand on." We may suspect here that there is some possible metaphor: an elephant and a donkey are both four-legged animals, of course, but they are also paired as the traditional political symbols in American politics. The underlying playful hint in the language here is perhaps that something "a person could stand on" is, in some way, a political platform or a set of ideas. However, the inclusion of a cookstove -- which also has four legs but is an inanimate object, and not immediately symbolic of anything -- problematizes this lurking metaphorical suggestion by reminding us that the poet is describing something purely literal: she wishes for four legs instead of two because four legs are harder to knock over: "Two legs pitch you over." This, again, is not literally true -- a loss of balance in a two-legged human is not necessarily caused by the legs themselves. "Two legs" here are represented with the rhetorical device of personification -- they "pitch you over" as though they possessed agency independent of yourself (which most people's legs do not).

It is worth noting at this point the chief rhetorical devices employed by Hirshfield in the poem, which is anaphora, or poetic repetition. Hirshfield's poem only has fifteen lines, but five of those lines contain the phrase "two legs." This level of repetition in a poetic text is astonishing -- it would be hard to imagine one-third of the lines in Paradise Lost each containing the same repeated phrase, but one-third of the lines in Hirshfield's poem contain a repeated phrase. The effect of this anaphora is both auditory and structural. It also relates back curiously to the poem's title: we are led to believe at the start that this will be a poem about why four legs are desirable, but it turns out to be a poem about why two legs are problematic. In short, the poem is less about a sincere desire to be an elephant or a donkey, and more a sincere exploration of the limitations of being a two-legged human being. The first three times the phrase is used, it is all about limitations: "Nothing on two legs weighs much… / Two legs pitch you forward. / Two legs tire." These are about other problems in human existence -- the sense of feeling weighted down, the sense of imabalance, the sense of exhaustion -- but they are being blamed on the two legs.

But the fourth time of the five that Hirshfield employs the phrase "two legs," we get a more complex thought which takes up one-third of the poem's lines to express. This complex thought is one which is far more traditional as a poetical subject -- erotic longing. Hirshfield suddenly reveals that the desire to have four legs when one only has two could be additionally troped as erotic longing -- the desire for two legs to become four legs by union with another two-legged person. Again, the personification of the legs continues, as the imagination of finding an erotic partner is troped by the image of the legs themselves seeking out another set of legs to dance with. It is a mark of Hirshfield's subtlety, however, that the word "dance" is never used in these lines: instead dancing is described as it would seem to the legs themselves, "move one set [of legs] forward to music / while letting the other move back." It is as though we are asked to describe the graceful romance of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire by only examining their legs, moving in elegant concert with each other while ignoring the people and personalities (and genders) attached to those legs. But the ultimate point of the erotic longing expressed in these lines is finally troped by Hirshfield with a bit of wordplay that links together the idea of romantic love with the mathematical wordgames that have structured the poem to this point: she imagines the desire of two legs to become four by meeting another similarly lonely set of two legs with a comic, yet poignant, image, where the legs would mark their erotic union by "carv[ing] into a tree trunk: / 2 gether 4 ever." This is, of course, quite literally the sort of thing that teenagers in love might actually carve onto a treetrunk, but the semi-literate alphanumeric abbreviations here contain a fuller expression of the wordplay that Hirshfield has been establishing all the way from the title of the poem. We might also be tempted to read the solitary "tree trunk" as a unifying image: it stands like one solitary leg, and could possibly represent the kind of union that these pairs of legs are achieving when they begin to dance together.

However, the concluding four lines of the poem actually take us in a very different direction altogether. We now get the last of Hirshfield's five repetitions of the phrase "two legs," when she tells us "Nothing on two legs can bark, / Can whinny or chuff." This seems to return us to the animal or mechanical industry explored earlier with the elephant and donkey, except that "bark" is associated with dogs, "whinny" with horses, and "chuff" -- somewhat strangely -- with locomotives. All of these words employ the poetic device of onomatopoeia -- they sound like what they mean -- and they seem to imply a form of expression that is denied to those with two legs. We have left the erotic longing of the poem's central section, and are now back into a more generalized longing for a form of self-expression. And although the trio of verbs here returns us to the donkey / elephant / cookstove triad from the poem's earlier portion, there is a crucial difference -- the inanimate object in the trio, the implied locomotive that can "chuff," but which is otherwise a heated smoke-issuing iron contraption like a cookstove, is something that doesn't have… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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