Study Guide

What Were They Like? Stanza 2

By Denise Levertov

Stanza 2

Line 10

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.

  • Now, someone is answering the first speaker's questions. We can safely assume, then, that our first speaker is a man.
  • This second person seems to know just what happened. And it's pretty bleak: the people were turned to stone. This could be a reference to nuclear war or other massive destruction, like a bombing.
  • It could also be a metaphor for how their personas changed after the war. A heart that turns to stone is figurative way of describing extreme sorrow.
  • The people, who once had "light hearts" (more figurative language), now are cold and stony.
  • War'll do that to ya.

Lines 11-12

It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.

  • It's becoming apparent that our second speaker actually doesn't know how to answer any of the questions about the people, because no one is left to remember how they did things.
  • Still, Levertov uses imagery to give the people an air of peacefulness and gentleness.
  • She also emphasizes how pleasant the people were before the war. It's not only their works we have lost; it's the people, too. They had worth.
  • Levertov also plays with form a little here, despite writing in free verse. Notice how some sentences carry over to the next line? That's the poetic tool of enjambment. If you read the poem aloud, you can see how the words naturally flow to the next line. This keeps the poem feeling conversational in nature, like an interview you'd read in the paper. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on Levertov's style.

Lines 13-15

Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.

  • We get more flower imagery, here. What's that all about, anyway?
  • Well, flowers are symbols of life carrying on; after all, they are literally the reproductive organs of plants.
  • They are also, of course, often used as symbols of beauty and springtime. That's why they are always used for Hallmark cards celebrating new babies, love, and spring holidays like Easter.
  • Levertov uses these flowers to contrast the lack of life in Vietnam in this alternate future. Whatever happened has caused life to cease entirely—no more children, no more flowers. Nothing can grow or reproduce.

Line 16

Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.

  • Whatever destroyed the country destroyed all hope of laughter.
  • After this line, Levertov uses an end-stop (the period at the end of the sentence). This forces the reader to take a pause and really consider the image.
  • And what an image it is. Levertov didn't leave out any of the realities of war.

Lines 17-18

A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.

  • This speaker is responding to the earlier question about ornaments in lines 6-7. The response is that, if the people did use fine materials for ornament, it was a long time ago. Now, they have no joy and no need for ornament.
  • Levertov then contrasts the bone china and ivory from the earlier lines to the charred bones of the people. Talk about bleak.
  • Notice how these short lines sound when you read them aloud? This adds to the blunt force of those heavy images. That's not an accident; Levertov likes to play with sound. Head to "Sound Check" for more on that.

Lines 19-21

It is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.

  • Here's a dose of reality for you: most of the people of Vietnam lived the life of peasants, according to our second speaker. The speaker wants us to acknowledge the realities of life there. They may have been too poor to collect fine ornaments or write epic poems.
  • This imagery aligns with what many Americans imagine Vietnam to be, based on film and news clippings.
  • Is this a stereotypical way of thinking of the people of Vietnam? Is it even a little condescending?
  • Maybe—Levertov may also be inserting these images here to remind us that she isn't talking about some fictional place; it's all very real.

Lines 22-24

When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.

  • These three lines are longer than any we've seen so far. This signals a change in the way the poem sounds. Head over to "Form and Meter" and "Sound Check" for more.
  • The images, too, are more detailed. Again, the speaker emphasizes the peacefulness of the people and their surroundings.
  • The speaker is also answering the question in the first stanza about whether the people of Vietnam had an "epic poem" (which are often about history) or not.
  • The answer: maybe. They may have told their children about their history. But, we can't be sure. That's because, in this fictional future, they are all dead.

Lines 25-26

When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.

  • Here we have it: in this projected future, it's bombs that have wiped out Vietnam.
  • This, too, is an answer to an earlier question. This time, the speaker is responding to the question about whether the people of Vietnam sang or just spoke. They didn't have time for either when the bombs started falling. They could only scream.
  • The imagery here may also remind many readers of a famous photograph taken during the Vietnam War: 1972's Napalm Girl.
  • Though taken after the poem was written, the image is one of many that people associate with the war. As the poem grew in popularity, it's likely that many readers in the 1970s (and some today) had the photo in mind when they first read these lines.

Lines 27-28

There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.

  • Not everything has been lost; an "echo" of their speech remains.
  • The line break after "yet" does leave us hanging, almost as if our words were floating in air. That's some clever enjambment.
  • Is this "echo" a symbol for the legacy of the people? Could be—let's read on.

Lines 29-31

It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now. 

  • The poem again leaves us with an image of gentle, peaceful living.
  • It provides quite a contrast to the images of ruin in this stanza.
  • Think Levertov's trying to jar the reader? Remember, poetry can be a form of protest, which often aims to confront unjust situations by informing others that they exist. We'd say that the destruction of a gentle people is a pretty jarring subject.
  • Here, Levertov uses a simile, comparing the flight of moths in moonlight to the voices of the people singing. Moths are gentle creatures, and moonlight is notoriously less harsh and hot than sunlight.
  • Levertov also adds punch to this image by breaking out some alliteration with the M words. Check out "Sound Check" to see how that works.
  • But this isn't an image we can grab onto for long: the speaker says that they can't be sure, because no one is singing in Vietnam. It's silent.
  • Their songs and legacy, unfortunately, died with the people. These are seriously sad times, gang.

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