Study Guide

The Whipping Stanza 4

By Robert Hayden

Stanza 4

Lines 13-16

My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful

  • Woah—we get some big changes in the fourth stanza. The poem began with what appeared to be somebody watching this whole whipping thing happen.
  • Now it seems like we're inside the head of the guy observing the whipping. Or are we? We could be inside the woman's too, but, as with so much else in this poem, we're not sure.
  • First, however, let's just figure out what the lines say and then handle this little bit of confusion.
  • This stanza recounts a memory of somebody's head being held between somebody else's knees. Those knees were a "bony vise," which is a metaphorical way of saying the knees were like this. That's a vise—a very strong and powerful tool. 
  • So, while this person was stuck between that "bony vise," he or she tried really hard to get away—it was a "writhing struggle."
  • The struggle was accompanied by "blows" (punches) and fear, a fear that was worse than those "blows that hateful." 
  • Hmm. We end this stanza without a period. Now, that means the line will keep going to the next stanza (this is known in the poetry biz as enjambment). Before we dash off, though, this line does make a certain sense in saying that the fear was worse than the blows, which were hateful. 
  • At the same time, the lack of a period (in this otherwise punctuated poem) means that the line could also be saying that the fear was worse than the blows "that hateful"… something. In other words, "hateful" could be describing blows, or it could be describing a word that's yet to come. 
  • We'll keep reading to see how this line wraps up, but we should first just quickly revisit the whole "Whose memory is this?" question.
  • It could be the speaker's memory of violent childhood. The scene that is unfolding before him (a woman chasing and whipping a young boy) may have reminded him of that "bony vise." 
  • The other possibility is that the memory belongs to the woman doing the whipping. Sure, it's a little bizarre that the speaker can magically get inside the woman's head and tell us what's going on, but hey—this is poetry.
  • Then again, he could just be guessing, trying to figure out her psychology, trying to see just why she insists on beating this boy.
  • We have no real way of knowing whose memory this is, so let's just keep on going and see what else is can be said of this charming childhood recall.

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