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Turtle

Turtle

by Kay Ryan

Lines 14-15 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 14

Her only levity is patience,

  • The word "levity" (another L word!) means "lightness," in the sense of lighthearted humor, but "lightness" can also mean "weightlessness" (remember the turtle with wings?). Throughout the poem, descriptions of the turtle have emphasized her slow, clumsy heaviness. So these references to lightness come as a welcome relief.
  • But why does the speaker equate "patience" with levity? Though patience may be a virtue, Shmoop has never thought of it as a funny virtue. Be that as it may, the word "patience" does seem like a good word to describe the turtle. One meaning of patience is "the ability to bear hardship calmly and without complaint." That certainly fits our turtle. The word also connotes meekness and serenity. Again, these qualities are consistent with the turtle's modest, unassuming character.
  • Would it surprise you to learn that "patience" is a special word to Kay Ryan? She's even written a whole poem about it. In that poem, she compares patience to diamonds.
  • So patience is most likely a good thing in this poem. But wait: why does the speaker finally have something good to say about the turtle? Hold that thought for a moment while we move to the final line of the poem…

Line 15

The sport of truly chastened things.

  • So here we are at the last line of the poem. Take a big breath, because we may have to dive deep to get to the bottom of this poem.
  • In the previous line, the speaker equated patience with levity, or lightheartedness. In this line, patience is described as a "sport." The word "sport" commonly refers to a pleasurable game or physical contest. But another meaning of "sport" is "mockery or mean-spirited joking." Remind you of anybody? Hasn't the speaker been making fun of the turtle (in a borderline mocking way) for much of the poem?
  • Yet, here at the very end of the poem, the speaker simply calls the turtle "chastened." The word "chastened" can mean "subdued to make more humble" or "corrected by punishment or suffering." These are pretty somber meanings, not at all mocking, and they acknowledge the turtle's suffering and humility.
  • "Chastened" can also mean "purified or refined," implying an authentic, improved state. 
  • Interpreted together, the last two lines suggest that the speaker has finally dropped that attitude of satirical posturing. The positive associations of "patience," joined in a slant rhyme with "chastened," reinforce the respectful tone of the poem's concluding lines. Though it may seem a bit sad that the turtle's "only" levity is patience, at least she's having a little fun, and the statement is more poignant than pitying. 
  • Moreover, there is that "lightness" to consider. The turtle may not have actual wings, but the poem hints that some mysterious levity, conceived through the turtle's patient suffering, is somehow lifting her up, giving this most luckless of creatures, against all odds, hope. Notice that the last word of the poem—"things"—is linked through rhyme with "wings," further enhancing the hopeful tone.
  • Plus, we shouldn't forget about "sport"—the word implies a measure of power. Unlike the speaker, the turtle does not exercise that power to mock or belittle others; her sport is patience. Still, the power of patience has arguably brought her pleasure as well as hope—perhaps even wisdom—giving her some leverage in a dangerous world that seems bent on destroying her, body and soul. In this sense, maybe the turtle, in her own small way, has the last laugh, the slightest of twinkles in her beady little eye.
  • After you finish reading a poem, there's sometimes a moment when the poem comes together in your mind as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • After reading "Turtle," you may find yourself wondering if the poem was really even about a turtle. After all, the poet didn't provide any realistic descriptive details—no mention of a patterned shell or hooked beak or leathery skin or tiny tail—just one peculiar metaphor after another.
  • If the turtle is, in fact, symbolic (see "Symbols: Turtle" for more on that), a means to reflect on human experience rather than the animal world, you may find some puzzling pieces of the poem, including the speaker's moody attitude, clicking into place. Like the turtle, people sometimes have to struggle to survive—emotionally if not physically.
  • What if the speaker of the poem is actually talking about (and to) herself? That might help explain the critical edge in the speaker's voice. Each of us has an inner critic, and we tend to be harder on ourselves than anyone else is. But if we can find a safe way to process and purge those negative feelings of fear and frustration and resentment and shame, we may achieve a more peaceful or "chastened" emotional state. Moving forward with renewed patience and self-respect, we may conclude that, after all, there are worse things than being a turtle.

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