Study Guide


Famous Summary

Our chatty speaker gabs about a lot of everyday things: rivers, boots, old photographs, loud voices and pulleys. Then she tells us that all these things are famous. Uh, come again? And, to top it off, she wants to be famous just like those things are. Since when do we want to be like boots?

Either she is a little confused about the definition of the word famous, or she is on to something. We think she owns a dictionary, so perhaps her explanation is worth reading. So hop to it!

  • Lines 1-14

    Line 1

    The river is famous to the fish.

    • This poem sort of reminds us of those analogies on the SAT—the ones that say "bark is to dog as meow is to ______." And, that is probably a pretty good way to think about approaching this poem. 
    • Just like in those analogies where you often know what most of the words in the analogy mean but the possible answers still throw you off a little, here we know about rivers and we know about fish; it's the famous that is rather confusing. 
    • We know what famous means. It means that people care about you and what you do. It means that people you don't even know think about you. It means that people celebrate your achievements and, often, your failures. Let's face it: in our modern world, it means your name makes headlines on TMZ's website. In a word, perhaps, it means that you are important. 
    • Yeah, yeah we get that. But then why is a river famous to fish? Well, fish live in a river; in fact, these particular fish have never lived anywhere but that river. They need the river. Everywhere they look, they see the river—because they are in it. But, they probably don't ever even think about the river. 
    • But, really, is famous about that? It seems like the speaker is using famous not in the sense of being hounded by paparazzi. No, she's talking about famous in the sense of being important. The river is just about the most important thing in a fish's whole life, if you think about it.
    • And that makes it famous.

    Line 2-4

    The loud voice is famous to silence,
    which knew it would inherit the earth
    before anybody said so.

    • Ooooh, it looks like we've got ourselves a little repetition going on here. Shmoopers, keep your eyes open for more "The _______ is famous to the _______" as you read through the poem. And check out our "Form and Meter" section for more on this trick of the poetry trade.
    • The next stanza takes us from the seeing and feeling of the water in the river to the hearing of a loud voice. The speaker is encouraging us to use our senses. 
    • But why would a loud voice be famous to silence? If we are thinking of analogies (like a river is to fish as a loud voice is to silence) then maybe what our speaker is saying is that a loud voice is important to silence—that without a loud voice, silence wouldn't or couldn't exist, just like the fish in the river.
    • WARNING! Deep thoughts ahead: If the world was only silence, and it was never broken up by a loud voice, then we wouldn't even know that there was silence, right? 
    • It's just like those fish in the river. They don't think about the river—unless they are hooked on a line and pulled out of it. 
    • So, maybe the thing that makes a loud voice famous to silence is that, in a sense, a loud voice and then its absence, is what allows silence to exist in the first place. Yeah, we know, Nye just blew your mind.
    • The second part of this line sounds like a reference to a passage from the Bible, which states "Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5). To be meek is to be gentle, patient, peaceful. Those are characteristics that we might assign to silence too. And, maybe to nature as well. (Which reminds us of the river and those fish…)
    • So the meekness, the silence, knew that it would inherit the earth long before Jesus ever said so in the Bible. Silence is being personified here, given the ability to know things, even though it's not a person, but an abstraction.

    Line 5-6

    The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
    watching him from the birdhouse.

    • It seems that the way we've been thinking about fame in the last two stanzas—as something important because it is needed—changes here. 
    • The birds clearly don't need the cat. They would probably prefer he run along and chase some squirrels or something. But, the speaker says that the sleeping cat is famous to those birds; and, he is. He is important. 
    • He is so important, in fact, that all the birds keep their eyes on him from the safety of their birdhouse, even when he is sleeping and poses no threat to them whatsoever. If he makes a move, they are going to know about it and spread the word to their birdie friends because his whereabouts have a rather important impact on their own safety. 
    • Perhaps this is fame in the sense of impact. Those birds know all about that cat because they know he has the potential to have a huge impact on their lives.

    Line 7

    The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

    • A tear poses no threat to a cheek, but it is still important. Now we just have to figure out why.
    • While the tear is falling it is the focus of the cheek. But, the tear is forgotten quickly. 
    • In the slow moments that a tear rolls down a cheek, it covers the cheek; it is there for all the world to see, drawing others' attention to the cheek; the cheek feels the warm and wet sensation—so unlike its usual experience brushing up against the air—of the tear. 
    • But, when the tear is gone, its importance to the cheek is gone, too. After all, who notices a cheek when there's no tear on it?
    • See? Even if the interaction is brief, it can still be important.

    Line 8-9

    The idea you carry close to your bosom
    is famous to your bosom.

    • Then there's this idea we carry close to our bosom. 
    • Bosom is an old-fashioned way to say a woman's chest, but in poetic terms it refers to the chest as a metaphor seat of emotions and feelings. 
    • So saying that you hold this idea close to you bosom is kind of like saying that you hold an idea close to your heart—that it is important and sacred to you. 
    • Of course an idea that is important to you is likewise important and celebrated by your emotions and feelings. 
    • But we can't help but wonder: does the idea become famous and important because we carry it close to our hearts; or, do we carry it close to our hearts because it is important to us?
    • Chicken? Egg? Anyone?

    Line 10-12

    The boot is famous to the earth,
    more famous than the dress shoe,
    which is famous only to floors.

    • This line about footwear gives us a good view into some of the other meanings of famous. 
    • Okay we've got boots and dress shoes, and the contrast is pretty clear: boots are used for working, for being in the outdoors, for getting dirty, protecting yourself from the elements, for doing hard work. 
    • Dress shoes, on the other hand, are all fancypants and high falutin'. They're those clean, shiny shoes you wear only on special occasions—like weddings, funerals, job interviews, Easter Sunday, first dates, and the like. 
    • So when she talks about "earth" here, it seems to be referring to the ground—the 'dirt beneath our feet'—in contrast to floors, which we can imagine as the clean, fancy stuff that we walk on to keep our dress shoes clean. 
    • The boot is famous to the earth because if you are wearing boots, you are probably walking all over the ground, interacting with it, doing outdoorsy things. The earth doesn't really have much interaction with the dress shoe, though, because, you know, we don't want to keep having to polish our dress shoes every time we get them muddy.
    • Nope, our shiniest footwear is reserved especially for floors, which aren't quite as common and aren't quite as huge as the big ol' earth. 
    • In the grand scheme of things, this means that boots are more famous than dress shoes. Period. If you think about it, that makes perfect sense. After all, if you think about the average person on this crazy planet of ours probably spends a lot more time in boots than wingtips.
    • What's the takeaway point here? Well, it seems that part of our definition of famous is expanding into the realm of interaction. What is important is what you interact with most.
    • In this case, for the earth, it's boots—not fancy footwear.

    Line 13-14

    The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
    and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

    • The photograph is described as being bent—which sounds like it has probably been handled frequently by the person carrying it around. 
    • We can imagine it being taken out, viewed, cherished; then, put away and taken out again. All that manhandling could result in a pretty banged-up picture, right? It also probably means the picture is much loved, too. 
    • This has to be a photo of a VIP—at least as far as the picture-carrier is concerned. Think about it: sure, you have lots of pictures in frames or housed in albums on Facebook. But, who is so important that you would print out a photo of them and carry it around with you? 
    • That is fame. The VIP in the photo is important, needed, and having a big impact on whoever it is that's carting that photo around and gazing at it all the time. 
    • But, of course, that person probably doesn't care too much about that photo you have of them. In fact, they probably hate their hair in that photo you are lugging around. But, to you, it is precious. That's what it really means to be famous.
  • Lines 15-21

    Lines 15-18

    I want to be famous to shuffling men
    who smile while crossing streets,
    sticky children in grocery lines,
    famous as the one who smiled back.

    • If the first seven stanzas of this poem describe to us what the author means by famous, then the last two stanzas are the wrap-up—the conclusion—of the poem. 
    • Brace yourselves, Shmoopers. We're about to find out why we were being told about fame to begin with. 
    • But first, let's recap what we've seen so far, just so we're all on the same page. 
    • First of all, we have come to understand that fame is relational—that means that something can only be famous to something else. You can't be famous in a vacuum. You can't be famous all by your little lonesome. Something is only famous if someone (or something) else considers it to be famous. 
    • But we also have to consider the fact that famous can mean different things. According to our awesome speaker, it can mean important, needed, impactful, interacting (however briefly). 
    • Now that we've got those two conditions under our belt, let's figure out what the speaker's saying in these lines in particular. 
    • Our speaker wants to interact with, have and impact on, or otherwise be important or needed by shuffling men and sticky children. Uh… really?
    • Really. 
    • Let's tackle these shuffling men. They sound old, feeble, maybe not as mobile as they used to be. They've seen better days. 
    • Then we've got these tiny, sticky kiddos with candy. Oh, and they're in grocery lines. These are the kids who are momentarily ignored by their parents, who are too busy paying the cashier to worry about where the kid's eyes are aimed at the moment. 
    • So here are two segments of society that are often overlooked because they are NOT important: the elderly and children. They're opposites, sure, but the one thing they have in common is that people often fail to pay them proper attention. 
    • The speaker thinks the act of smiling back at them—of not overlooking them as so many others do—will make her famous (or important) to them. 
    • She can have a real impact—even a brief one—on them by this simple act of kindness.
    • Ah, so smiling is what makes a person famous. Or at least it makes the speaker famous.

    Lines 19-21

    I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
    or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
    but because it never forgot what it could do.

    • A pulley and a buttonhole are not spectacular. Really, how many times have you ever stopped to consider all the ways that the buttonhole has had an impact on your life? We're guessing you've never paused to gaze fondly at your buttonhole and tell it how much you value its unique ability to hold a button in place. 
    • But, now that we are talking about it, take a moment and think about it. What would you do without all those buttonholes? They are not spectacular. Buttonholes certainly aren't going to end world hunger or cure cancer, but a buttonhole never forgets what it can do, and it does what it can spectacularly well. Without buttons, how would we ever keep warm? How would our pants stay up? Seriously.
    • A pulley is a very simple machine made of a wheel and a cable that permits the lifting of really heavy stuff—like elevators. If you've ever used a weight-lifting machine, you've seen a pulley. Modern society would be pretty tough without pulleys, and not just because the gym wouldn't have a Bowflex. We'd never get to work in our skyscrapers. 
    • See, the speaker wants to be famous like that. She doesn't want to do anything spectacular. But, she believes that doing the little that she can do will mean that she can have an impact on others. And, perhaps, if she has enough of an impact, she will end up on the cover of People.
    • So remember that, Shmoopers, the next time you consider trying out for Paris Hilton's My New BFF. It might be easier just to smile at the dude who delivers your mail.