Edgar Albert Guest’s poem “It Couldn’t Be Done” is all about the diligence and self-motivation that help one to sail through all the hardships in order to reach the destination he desires. There are several faces out there looking at a person with their cynical eyes. They say, “It couldn’t be done!” Sometimes, those who are close to one’s heart are there to say, “Leave it, it’s not a thing for a fellow like you.” But, they fail to notice the spark of determination in the person’s eyes and the broad, unrestrained smile on the face, depicting the will to overcome all the barriers. Readers, in fact, can connect with each word of this piece, if they ever dreamed of achieving something big and greater than the popular perception.
- Read the full text of “It Couldn’t Be Done” below:
It Couldn't Be Done by Edgar Albert Guest Somebody said that it couldn’t be done But he with a chuckle replied That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried. So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin On his face. If he worried he hid it. He started to sing as he tackled the thing That couldn’t be done, and he did it! Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that; At least no one ever has done it;” But he took off his coat and he took off his hat And the first thing we knew he’d begun it. With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin, Without any doubting or quiddit, He started to sing as he tackled the thing That couldn’t be done, and he did it. There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done, There are thousands to prophesy failure, There are thousands to point out to you one by one, The dangers that wait to assail you. But just buckle in with a bit of a grin, Just take off your coat and go to it; Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it. - from The Path to Home (1919)
“Somebody said that it couldn’t be done” to the speaker of this poem. This speaker represents all those who have faith in themselves and an iron-like determination to achieve something everyone around them has never thought of. He does not stop what he is doing and starts convincing them. Instead of that, he replies, “maybe it couldn’t”. But, he knows that he can accomplish the task. Without wasting his precious time, he buckles in, takes off his coat, and goes to it without any doubt or equivocation. And finally, he gets it done!
The title of this poem “It Couldn’t Be Done” is a roundabout reference to “How it can be done” or what are the prerequisites of fulfilling one’s dream. Guest’s poem delves deeper into the mindset of a successful person who never gets bogged down by what others are saying to him. Their words are meant for discouraging the person as they have never thought of achieving what he has dreamt of. Hence, they try to impose their perception of the person. What the poet tells readers that they should not count their assumptions under proven facts. Instead of that, they should focus on the task, and finally, they can fulfill their dreams.
Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter
Edgar Guest’s poem “It Couldn’t Be Done” consists of three stanzas. Each stanza has eight lines. The lines of each section can be read as two quatrains. Guest uses the end-stopped form to present two ideas in each verse. For example, in the first stanza, the first four lines complete a single idea, and the rest of the lines talk about a distinct idea. But, these two sections are interrelated.
This poem is told from a third-person point of view. The poet Edgar Guest narrates the poem. In the first two sections, there are two voices. One represents the person who wants to accomplish his goal. While the second voice is that of the conventional, cynical society.
The rhyme scheme of this poem is ABABCDCD. This scheme is also known as the alternative rhyme scheme that is followed throughout the poem. However, there are a few instances where readers can find imperfect rhymes. For example, in the first stanza, “grin” imperfectly rhymes with “thing”. While, in the last stanza, “failure” does not rhyme at all with “you”. But, the word “failure” is pronounced in a manner to make it rhyme with “you”. Besides, the poet uses the end-stop rhyming in each section.
This poem is written in a combination of both the iambic and anapestic meters. After metrically analyzing the text, it can be said that the poem is written in iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter alternatively with a few anapestic variations. For example, let’s have a look at the scansion of the first stanza:
Some-bo/-dy said/ that it couldn’t/ be done
But he/ with a chuckle/ rep-lied
That “may/-be it couldn’t,”/ but he/ would be one
Who wouldn’t/ say so/ till he’d tried.
So he buckled/ right in/ with the trace/ of a grin
On his face./ If he wor/-ried he hid/ it.
He start/-ed to sing/ as he tackled/ the thing
That couldn’t/ be done,/ and he did/ it!
Poetic Devices & Figurative Language
Readers can find the following poetic devices in “It Couldn’t Be Done”:
- Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds can be found in the following examples: “Somebody said,” “say so,” “he hid,” “started to sing,” and “Somebody scoffed”.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem for connecting the lines internally. For example, these lines are enjambed: “So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin/ On his face.” Here, readers have to quickly go through both lines to understand the meaning.
- Irony: Guest uses ironic references in: “maybe it couldn’t” and “with the trace of a grin”. In the first example, the speaker is hinting at the opposite idea by saying that “maybe” the thing couldn’t be done.
- Refrain: The last two lines of each stanza act as a refrain. This refrain is used for emphasizing the idea that everything can be done if one has the determination to do it.
- Metaphor: In this poem, “a lift of his chin” is a metaphorical reference to self-confidence and determination. There is another metaphor in the line “The dangers that wait to assail you.” Here, “dangers” are compared to enemies.
- Anaphora: It occurs in the first three lines of the last stanza. These lines begin with the phrase “There are thousands”. It is also present in lines 6-7 of this stanza. This device is used to create a lasting impression of the ideas in a reader’s mind.
Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
The poem “It Couldn’t Be Done” begins with a reference to conventional society. The person who is referred to as “Somebody” at the beginning of the first and second stanzas, is none other than a representative of a negative force acting against the speaker of this poem. This person tells the speaker of this poem that what he is doing is impossible to finish. But, our speaker is confident enough. He laughs inwardly or chuckles and with an ironic tone, replies that possibly what he is saying can be true. But, the smile tells exactly the opposite.
According to the poet, his speaker is not the kind of a person who leaves work before even beginning it. He does not procrastinate over his goal. Hence, he is confident in his tone.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!
In the following quatrain, the poet talks about what he does afterward. Without being demotivated, it seems he is rather charged up with the negativity around him. He buckles in with a bit of a grin on his face. It is the laughter of criticism. Rather he smiles at the commentator’s foolishness. That person does not even think outside the predetermined way of seeing things.
According to the poet, his speaker was also worried about the culmination. Still, he did not show it. Fear is not a bad thing. It makes us more cautious and helps us to cut down our mistakes. Hence, the speaker was worried. He was anxious about how long it was going to take, not the impossibility of the task
He was self-motivated. From his singing it is clear. He gathered courage and wiped off the fear from his heart by singing. Finally, he could tackle the thing that seemed impossible at first hand.
Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
The second stanza begins with a reference to another commentator who tries to mock his efforts. The term “scoff” means to comment on someone derisively. This person uses a rather hyperbolic tone. According to him, no one was successful in getting this task done. Therefore, the speaker could not ever do that. Is it a valid argument? If a person fails to crack an exam, it doesn’t mean nobody can crack it. It was his perception as he failed. Failure transformed his perception into a fact.
This time Guest’s speaker remains silent. He replied with his body language. If the commentator was intelligent enough he would have understood his hint. Without saying anything to the person standing by, he took off his coat and hat. From this act of the speaker, it is clear that he was not a person who won’t even begin a task for fear of failure. That’s why the poet says, “the first thing we knew he’d begun it.”
It is all about starting with short-term goals. The beginning is definitely not going to be easy. But, when a person gets ready to do what he badly wants to achieve, he is halfway there to his goal. The impediment is the starting. When one realizes it, little by little, he gets closer to his goal.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
Nothing can stop a person who is self-motivated like the person in this poem. He heard a lot of negative remarks buzzing around like red lights signaling him about the impending danger. His silence was the best answer that he could give to those who were advising him with their perceptions. He lifted his chin and there was a bit of a grin on his face. “A lift of a chin” is a symbol of “stiff upper lip”. It displays the fortitude and stoicism of the speaker in the face of adversity. His “grin” is a symbol of self-confidence.
In his heart, there was no doubt or quiddit. The term “quiddit” means an equivocation. It means that he was not ambiguous regarding the thing he was doing. One thing was crystal clear. He would definitely achieve his goal, sooner or later. From his attitude, it is clear that he was the master of his mind and the captain of his soul. He knew how to suppress negative emotions and boost his morale by constantly giving positive signals to his mind.
In the last two lines, Guest uses repetition. This refrain makes readers focus on the fact that he was successful.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
The last stanza of “It Couldn’t Be Done” begins with an anaphora. Guest repeats the phrase “There are thousands” to emphasize that there are several stories of failure around a person. Many believe that what is impossible for them, is impossible for anyone. According to the poet, those people are in the count of thousands. They tell others about how one’s goal is impossible to achieve and prophesy their impending failure.
Such negative commentators even go on to imagine the dangers that await a person who is confident enough to fulfill his dream. Their comments are meant for breaking the confidence, nothing else.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.
The poet advises readers not to listen to what they remark as if they have seen the future. Nobody can. Successful personalities shape their own future, rather than imagining what the future will look like. They dream. But, they don’t make their dreams their master. So, Guest tells us to buckle in with a bit of a grin on our faces.
There is nothing impossible to achieve. Hence, we should not stop smiling. We should take off our metaphorical coats, a reference to our comfort zones. In order to be successful, one must get out of his comfort zone. We have to sing the lays uttered by successful people while we tackle the thing “That cannot be done”. If we follow what the poet advises us, we will surely make our dreams our reality.
Central Idea & Theme
Guest’s poem “It Couldn’t Be Done” explores the theme of success and failure. The central idea of this poem concerns the mindset of a successful person. In order to portray how to reach the point of success, the poet talks about an imaginary character who “did it!”. Instead of listening to various negative remarks such as “It couldn’t be done” and “Oh you’ll never do that”, he constantly gave positive messages to his mind. He represents any of those who have achieved something in their lives. This poem also taps on the themes of overcoming fear and negativity, perception vs. reality, and inner motivation.
Edgar Albert Guest, the People’s Poet, penned down this motivational poem conveying the mantra of success. His optimistic and inspirational view on life is revealed through the lines. Guest wrote several poems concerning the themes present in “It Couldn’t Be Done”. This poem is best known for its iconic lines. Let’s have a look at its usage in popular culture.
Usage in Popular Culture
- Idris Elba recited the poem on the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award on 16 December 2012.
- It was used in an Audi commercial.
- The poem inspired comedian Benny Hill’s parody “They Said That It Couldn’t Be Done”.
- Grandmaster Flash, a Barbadian-American DJ, named his second album They Said It Couldn’t Be Done after Guest’s poem.
- A 1970 documentary It Couldn’t Be Done is also named after his poem.
Questions and Answers
Guest’s first poem was published in Detroit Free Press. His poems were published in some 300 newspapers. The poem “It Couldn’t Be Done” was first published in 1919 in his book of poetry The Path to Home. It first came to print in 1917.
This poem is about how a person did what he dreamed of without being bogged down by the negative comments. There were several stories of failures around him. Still, he remained confident and finally got it done. Through this piece, Edgar Guest conveys to readers how a person can reap success.
The man in the poem took off his coat and hat to get himself ready for the task. Here, taking off the coat symbolizes the act of coming out of one’s comfort zone.
The main theme of this poem concerns how to become successful. It portrays the theme from the perspective of a person who succeeded even after listening about the impossibility of the task he was doing.
According to the poet, to undertake a difficult task, one needs to come out of the comfort zone. He should remain confident throughout the journey. The poet metaphorically advises readers to buckle in with a grin on their face and take off their coats before beginning the task. While tackling the task, they should be singing the song of success.
When one reads this poem, he or she becomes motivated. The fear of failure or hesitation of beginning a task fades away. It also boosts up one’s self-confidence.
The rhyme scheme of this poem is ABABCDCD. There are a few slant rhymes that break this rhyming pattern a bit.
The attitude of the speaker remains confident and firm. For remaining strong from the inside, he is not influenced by the negative comments buzzing around him. Finally, he accomplishes the seemingly difficult task.
The line “that couldn’t be done, and he did it” contains an antithesis. In the first part of this line, the poet talks about what others think bout the task his speaker was doing. While, the second part tells readers that no matter what others thought of him, finally, he succeeded.
Edgar Guest’s “It Couldn’t Be Done” contains several symbols. For example, the “coat” and “hat” are the symbols of the comfort zone. In order to be successful, one needs to come out of his comfort zone. Besides, the “a lift of his chin” is a symbol of fortitude and stoicism, and “a bit of grin” stands for self-confidence.
Similar Poems with Life Lessons
- “A Time to Believe” by B. J. Morbitzer – This simple poem is filled with positive energy that quickly excites one’s mind.
- “Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke – It’s a short “greenhouse poem” about a dark, dank cellar where all the shoots are drooping, roots are ripe, and manure is piled against the planks; still, there is the urge to survive!
- “What is Life?” by John Clare – It’s all about the meaning of life and true happiness.
- “The Man of Life Upright” by Thomas Campion – This song is about how an upright or honest man leads his life.
- Christina Brennan Reads “It Couldn’t Be Done” — Listen to Christina Brennan, a finalist of Poetry Out Loud, reading the poem.
- “It Couldn’t Be Done” Audi Commercial — Watch the 2013 Audi commercial celebrating its 100th anniversary.
- “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done”, a Parody by Benny Hill — Read the parody of Edgar Guest’s poem by Comedian Benny Hill.
- Idris Elba Recites “It Couldn’t Be Done” — Listen to the poem recited on the BBC’S Sports Personality of the Year Award on 16 December 2012.
- Poet Profile & Poems of Edgar Guest — Read the poet’s biography and poems.
- About Edgar Albert Guest — Explore more about the poet’s life and his works.