We hear two sounds running through this poem, two rhythms, two tones that intermingle and reinforce each other. We picked musical instruments to capture the spirit of each, but let's see if you can hear what we mean.
Try reading those first four lines of the poem. Can you hear that short, sharp, rat-a-tat sound of the words, like "pipe is lit" (1) or "fire I sit" (3)? Tap-tap-tap. Not one word in the first four lines is longer than a syllable, and most of them have a sharp, tinny sound, like a snare drum. We're talking about happy, light things, and the bright drum sound sets the right mood.
Then, as sadder thoughts creep in, we start to hear a rounder, deeper, smoother sound. That's the cello. It plays the melody of those open, wide "O" sounds that crop up throughout the poem. Say this one out loud: "A moment, and the prompter's chime/ Will ring the curtain down on you" (11-12). Do you hear how slow and wide those sounds are? They're totally different from the opening.
That snare drum sound isn't gone for good, though. It's definitely there at the end: "There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye!" (56). See? Tap-tap-tap again. In fact, a lot of the tension and emotional power of the poem comes from the struggle between these two feelings (sharp and happy vs. slow and sad) and the sounds that represent them.
Well, Robert Service is a pretty straightforward guy, and here he basically just tells us what this poem is about: the end of a year. Still, that's important. The title sets our expectations for our reading experience. Before we even dive in, we know, more or less, what we're going to be dealing with.
The specific words in the title matter, too. He could have called this poem "New Year's Eve," or something, but that's not really what Service focuses on. He doesn't focus on the new year, but the old one, which leads to a slightly more serious and melancholy tone. And this poem is about what the "passing" feels like. Service freezes that one moment, and forces us to look really hard at the feelings that go along with it.
Ever been to see The Phantom of the Opera? If so, you'll know exactly what we're talking about when we say that we imagine this poem taking place in a big old cavern of a theater, filled with cobwebs and echoes and ghostly sounds. Things definitely go bump in the night here. It's not that it's depressing, really – just sort of gloomy and exciting and spine tingling, like a good horror movie. That haunted criminal (lines 33-40) would find plenty of gloomy little crannies to slink into. There might be bright lights on the stage, and happy music here and there (the mood is pretty cheerful in parts of this poem), but there's always that spooky feeling in the background.
We imagine the speaker of this poem as a kind of melodramatic actor. We can just see this guy – a little tubby, maybe a goatee, some heavy stage makeup, knee-pants, and a ruffly shirt. He's a real ham, and he overdoes everything. He warbles out his lines, waves his hands in the air, and squawks and yells. He's the really dramatic type, making a big deal out of everything, on stage and off. He loves to be the center of attention. See all the "O"s in this poem? Those are his favorites. They give him a chance to really howl. When he booms out a line like "O Maiden! why that bitter tear," he sounds like the whole weight of the world is on him. All the other actors can do is roll their eyes and choke back a giggle.
You know what, though? We think this poem needs a speaker like this – someone who can really live and breathe the drama, the emotion, who lays it on thick every time and catches up in the excitement of it all.
But that's just our opinion. How do you picture the speaker?
There are some quick shifts in this poem, and it can be a little hard to figure out the slightly wacky central metaphor. With a little hand up from Shmoop, though, we think this should be an easy climb.
Robert Service wrote poems for people everywhere to love, memorize, treasure, and pass onto their kids. This isn't poetry to twist your brain into knots or to write a long, dry book about. This is meant to be living poetry, full of adventure, honest feelings, and the kind of experiences anyone could relate to. Service uses some poetic tricks, and he loves language, but he doesn't pack his poems with dense philosophy or long words. The rhyme and rhythm tend to be regular, and the mood is pretty upbeat. Well, maybe not in "The Passing of the Year."
Once a poet (or anyone) gets a certain reputation, it can be easy to keep them in that box. That's why it's important to keep an eye out for changes and surprises. For instance, we think a lot of this poem is kind of dark and spooky. It's not exactly Edgar Allan Poe spooky, but still enough to make our spines tingle. Coming from friendly old Robert Service, that's kind of a nice surprise.
Sometimes poets like to mess around with the rhyme or the rhythm of their poems. We here at Shmoop thinks that's cool, but sometimes you can really wear yourself out trying to figure it out. Not here. This poem is a textbook example of regular, clean, even rhyme and meter. No head scratching needed. We'll break it down for you. Let's start with the rhyme.
This poem rhymes on alternating lines. That means that, in every eight-line stanza, there are four rhyming pairs. We'll show you how that works in the first stanza. We put rhyming words in bold, and lines that rhyme with each other are marked with the same letter at the end:
My glass is filled, my pipe is lit, (A)
My den is all a cosy glow; (B)
And snug before the fire I sit, (A)
And wait to feel the old year go. (B)
I dedicate to solemn thought (C)
Amid my too-unthinking days, (D)
This sober moment, sadly fraught (C)
With much of blame, with little praise. (D)
See how that works? The pairs are separated by one line, but they're all there (lit/sit, glow/go). It's pretty direct, and it helps to give the poem its particularly smooth, even feel.
Same goes for the rhythm of the poem (also called the meter) – it's consistent throughout the poem. Now, in this case, we're focusing on the syllables in each line and trying to figure out which ones are emphasized (or "stressed" as English teachers put it). Let's look at the first four lines again to see how it works in this case. We'll put the stressed syllables in bold – try reading it aloud, and you should hear how we picked them out:
My glass | is filled, | my pipe | is lit,
My den | is all | a co|sy glow;
And snug | before | the fire | I sit,
And wait | to feel | the old | year go.
Can you hear the pattern? Unstressed-stressed, unstressed-stressed, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM. We call that kind of meter iambic.
See how we divided the syllables into pairs with slashes up there? Those unstressed-stressed pairs are called "feet." (Don't ask us why…) There are four feet in each line, so this is called iambic tetrameter. ("Tetra" meaning "four.") Simple as that. You can hear and feel how this even, regular rhythm helps to give the poem its calm, kind of soothing tone.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Maybe not a lot of people relax with a pipe these days, but you can imagine the guy who would, right? Maybe an older gentleman with a bushy beard and a favorite comfy chair he likes to nap in. To go with that pipe, he needs a glass of the hard stuff – we're pretty sure he's not drinking apple juice. In any case, these are symbols of comfort, relaxation, and a peaceful nighttime routine. You could swap out whatever does that for you, like "my hot chocolate and my bubble bath," for example. Guess that doesn't sound quite as tough, but what can you do?
So, if you focus on one major image in this poem, one important poetic trick, we think this should be it. The major action of this poem is driven by the transformation of the "Old Year." In order to dramatize the ending of the year, Service turns it into an old man. This imaginary old guy seems to be some kind of actor, taking his final bow. See the analogy there? We knew you would.
If the Old Year is an actor, the stage he is standing on is the "Stage of Time." You see the metaphor? The moments of time (like a year) roll past us like actors on a stage.
The people who are sitting in this imaginary theater are a part of the extended metaphor, too. Service doesn't come out and say it, but these audience members are standing in for the people who have lived through this year along with the speaker. We're not sure if they're meant to stand in for the whole world – maybe they're just an interesting sample. Still, there's a way in which they seem less like real people and more like ideas or stock characters (the rich guy, the criminal, the disappointed lover, etc.).
The first member of the audience we meet is a young woman. Apparently she'd pretty bummed out. The speaker doesn't know why she's so miserable, but he guesses that it might have to do with a dead relative or an unfaithful lover.
This is the second audience member we meet. He also has the distinction of being just about the only consistently happy dude in the poem. Seems like he's had a great year, even if everyone else was crying and getting old and trembling in fear. The "Optimist" is the speaker's name for him, and again, that's pretty different from calling him "Victor" or "Rob" or something like that. In a way, he feels like a stand-in for all the happy, lucky people in the world.
Here's the last audience member we get a chance to meet. If the Maiden was a stand in for sadness, and the Optimist for luck and happiness, then this guy represents guilt, terror, regret, and all that other good stuff.
Sorry folks. Nothing steamy here at all – not even a glimmer.