Violence and Death
In the "Setting" section, we discuss how we could easily imagine the speaker saying this poem while serving coffee or tea in her living room, on a pleasant, peaceful afternoon. This setting, and the generally calm tone of the poem, doesn't immediately call up violence or death. But if we look closely at what the poem says, we see that even silence can have a darkly dangerous edge.
- Line 3: The speaker's father makes an allusion to the 19th-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote classics such as "Paul Revere's Ride" and The Song of Hiawatha. But he doesn't talk about Longfellow's poems. Instead, he refers specifically to Longfellow's grave. This is especially morbid if you know that Longfellow's house is not too far from his grave and would probably be a more cheerful tourist hotspot.
- Lines 5-7: Whoa, where did this graphic imagery come from? It's one thing to bring up a cat chasing a mouse. It's a whole other thing to describe, in detail, the poor mouse's tail hanging from the cat's mouth. We also see two layers of similes at work here. First, the father says that superior people are "Self-reliant like the cat." He shows us what these people are like by comparing their behavior to an animal's. Amidst this animal imagery, the father adds a second simile: the mouse's tail hangs from the cat's mouth "like a shoelace." What's interesting here is that a shoelace belongs to the human, not animal, world. So, bottom line? People are described to be like a cat, but then its prey, the mouse, brings to mind a person. It's a pretty weird inversion. We're not exactly sure what to make of it, but we feel that it's important to point out.
- Line 9: We hear the phrase "to be robbed of speech" so often that it's almost a cliché, but in this context, following descriptions of a grave and a cat taking a mouse as prey, it contains a pretty interesting metaphor. Burglars rob a bank; a mugger robs a woman walking through Central Park. Like a gold bar or a wallet, speech is presented as something that can be stolen or taken by force.