Study Guide

Turtle Quotes

  • Freedom and Confinement

    She can ill afford the chances she must take
    In rowing toward the grasses that she eats. (3-4)

    You go, girl! At least the turtle is on the move here, heading for her favorite meal despite all the dangers along the way. The reference to "chances" reminds us of the odds stacked against her. How free are we if bad luck can sabotage our best-laid plans at any moment?

    She's often stuck up to the axle on her way
    To something edible (8-9)

    Everyone gets stuck occasionally, but this turtle seems unusually accident-prone, as she "often" ends up stuck during her forays for food. Either she's doing something wrong, or she really was born under an unlucky star. Or maybe nature just isn't fair.

    […] and almost any slope
    Defeats her modest hopes (6-7)

    In the musical South Pacific, the heroine confesses: "I'm stuck like a dope with a thing called hope, and I can't get it out of my heart." The turtle's "modest hopes" are repeatedly dashed. At what point does discouragement become despair? When the turtle is stuck in the mud, does she still have any hope stuck in her heart?

    She skirts the ditch which would convert
    Her shell into a serving dish. (10-11)

    It's a turtle's worst-case scenario: lying in a ditch on your back, totally exposed to predators. Talk about trapped! So far the turtle has somehow managed to avoid this fate: her life, as well as her freedom, depends on it.

    […] She lives
    Below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
    Will change her load of pottery to wings. (12-13)

    In many ways, the turtle seems caged by circumstances, and what caged creature doesn't dream of flying free? But the turtle can't imagine such freedom. She's had so much bad luck, she doesn't expect it to change. But do her low expectations mean that she's given up? Is it possible to find freedom, even within the narrow boundaries of a turtle's life?

  • Perseverance

    Who would be a turtle who could help it? (1)

    One thing's for sure: the speaker of this poem is clearly not Abraham Lincoln. We're quite sure he wouldn't be so dismissive of turtles. The speaker's scornful tone in the poem's opening line hints that this turtle will probably have to swim against the current, persevering on her own without the benefit of an outboard motor or vigilant lifeguards.

    […] barely mobile (2)

    If you're a marathon runner, perseverance is your middle name. You've trained your body well for long-distance running and have confidence in your powers of endurance. The turtle, however, is "barely mobile." In the race of life, she will always remain slow and awkward, and no amount of training will change that fact. Yet she perseveres.

    […] almost any slope
    Defeats her modest hopes (6-7)

    Many expert mountain climbers who attempt Everest have to turn back; but there's no shame in being defeated by the world's tallest mountain. They can still point to their conquests of other impressive peaks. The turtle doesn't have any record to fall back on, no history of successes to keep her going. No wonder her hopes are "modest." In fact, it's a miracle that she has any hope at all. But the girl just digs deep and keeps on truckin'.

    Her only levity is patience (14)

    Grown-ups are always telling little kids to be patient. Often, it means waiting, but sometimes it means persevering: for example, trudging through the mall with your mom when you're tired and cranky and jealous of your baby brother who gets to ride in the stroller. "Perseverance" is one synonym of "patience." But the link to lightheartedness is unclear. The turtle is no Energizer Bunny, so what's with the levity? Must be a private joke. Turtle's got a secret. And apparently it's what keeps her going.

  • Women and Femininity

    She can ill afford the chances she must take (3)

    Here, in the third line of the poem, the speaker first describes the turtle as female. Closely tied to this initial identification of the turtle's gender is an explicit acknowledgement of the turtle's at-risk status. Life is full of risks, for men as well as women. But in many parts of the world, women have been especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

    […] almost any slope
    Defeats her modest hopes. (6-7)

    Think of the uphill battle American suffragettes faced in seeking the right for women to vote; think of the many setbacks and defeats they had to overcome. In isolation, the words "slope" and "defeats" have no specific connection to women's rights. But consider the context. With its connotations of "shy," "meek," and "unassertive," the word "modest" has strong connections to the "lady-like" notions associated with traditional women's roles.

    She skirts the ditch which would convert
    Her shell into a serving dish (10-11)

    Once you become sensitized to the connotations of individual words in the poem, the word "skirts" may jump out at you. Here, "skirts" clearly means "avoids," but it also can refer to a woman's garment (for more on this, check out our "Detailed Summary"). The term "serving dish" also connotes the domestic realm traditionally overseen by women. Plus, notice how the turtle protects herself: through avoidance rather than confrontation. (Unlike the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this traditional gal has not cultivated her martial arts skills.) In these ways, the poem again subtly links women with ideas of repression and violence.

    […] never imagining some lottery
    Will change her load of pottery to wings. (12-13)

    If, throughout your life, people in authority keep telling you that you're unworthy, it's hard not to believe it yourself. In line 13, the word "pottery" recalls the earlier reference to "serving dish," connoting even more humble dinnerware. This female turtle doesn't even dare imagine that she has the capacity to rise above the limiting circumstances of her life.

    Her only levity is patience,
    The sport of truly chastened things. (14-15)

    "Chastened" can mean "subdued," "repressed," or "punished." These meanings are certainly relevant to bias against women. And one synonym for "patience" is "endurance." Throughout history, women have suffered physical, emotional, and economic subjugation. Their ability not only to endure, but also, over time, to progress in their struggle for fundamental human rights is cause for celebration, don't you think? Maybe the little glimmer of "levity" and "sport" in the poem acknowledges this hope for a brighter future.

  • Humility

    […] almost any slope
    Defeats her modest hopes. (6-7)

    As a synonym of "humble," "modest" has positive connotations—unpresumptuous, reasonable, discreet. But here the word is linked with "defeats," triggering other, less positive, connotations of "modest"—meek, unsure, unassertive. Come on, Turtle, time to play "Queen of the Mountain." It's a competitive game, and you don't have to be so polite!

    […] never imagining some lottery
    Will change her load of pottery to wings. (12-13)

    In Aesop's tale, the tortoise never expected to grow wings and fly across the finish line. But as she plodded along, don't you think she still had the goal in mind, still had hope that winning was not totally out of the realm of possibility? The fact that Ryan's turtle is too humble to imagine a dramatic reversal in her situation does not necessarily mean that she is too meek to contemplate more measured success. Or does it?

    Her only levity is patience, (14)

    One synonym for "patience" is "humility," so "patience" is not an unexpected word to find near the end of the poem. But we keep bumping up against the odd pairing of "patience" with "levity," which means "cheerful humor or lightheartedness." There's no way around the implication that humility (patience) has its own mysterious joys and rewards.

    The sport of truly chastened things. (15)

    Though "chastened" often has negative connotations (punishment, suppression), it can also mean "purify" or "refine," implying growth through suffering. Joined with "truly," which connotes authenticity, "chastened" lends the humble turtle an air of seriousness and dignity. Still, even in the last line, the poem won't let us get all somber and self-important—just as "patience" in the previous line was paired with "levity," "chastened" is paired with "sport."