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Death of a Young Son by Drowning by Margaret Atwood

“Death of a Young Son by Drowning” appears in Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970). This verse collection is regarded as a historiographic metafiction that consists of three elements, history, fiction, and theory. In this poem, Atwood describes a mother’s lamentation of his deceased son who died by drowning. Though the text sounds like a tragic tale of a young son’s death, it covers several ideas through the usage of metaphors and symbols. For instance, the journey of the son into the foreign land is nothing but a search of his roots, his true identity. Likewise, several interesting and probing ideas are present in this poem.

  • Read the full text of “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” here with the analysis section.
Analysis of Death of a Young Son by Drowning by Margaret Atwood


Summary

“Death of a Young Son by Drowning” is about the tragic death of a person. This poem is told from the perspective of his mother. She describes how his son, with an adventurous zeal in his heart, set out to discover the land they settled in. They were new to the place. Hence, he wandered about in search of his roots. Though he was successful in finding his origin, he could not make it up till the end. One day, he slid on the bank and was carried far by the cruel waves. His mother cannot say where his body went. But, finally, he was recovered from the water and buried in the country, probably Canada, they migrated to.

Meaning

The title of the poem reveals less than the actual text. It simply points to an accident of a “young son”. Atwood does not provide enough information about the person or the speaker, his mother. From the text, it is clear that they settled in a new country. The speaker’s son set out on a voyage of discovery. He was able to navigate through his origin. However, the second time, he died by drowning in a river. He was so reckless that he could not decipher the depths of the dangerous river. His mother laments the way her only son died tragically. In this piece, Atwood shows how a mother feels after losing her child and how her heart hardens with time.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

Atwood wrote “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” in free-verse. It means there is no regular rhyme scheme or meter in the text. It consists of ten stanzas. The first nine stanzas are written in tercets (stanzas having three lines each). While the last stanza contains two lines. The overall poem is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker who is the mother of the “young son”.

Rhyme Scheme

There is no regular rhyming pattern in this poem. However, in a few instances, readers can find the use of slant rhymes. For example, in the fifth stanza, “adventurer” rhymes with “remember”. In the seventh stanza, the last words of each line end with a similar sound. But, the lines do not rhyme perfectly. Apart from that, Atwood also uses internal rhyming by repeating a similar sound within a line.

Meter

Being a free-verse poem, it does not contain a set meter. The text is written mostly in the iambic meter with a few variations. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first six lines in order to understand the overall metrical pattern.

He, who/ na-vi/-ga-ted/ with suc/-cess

the dan/-ge-rous/ ri-ver/ of his/ own birth

once more/ set forth

on a vo/-yage of dis/-co-ve-ry

in-to/ the land/ I float/-ed on

but could/ not touch/ to claim.

As we can see, in the quoted excerpt, Atwood uses anapestic and iambic feet alternatively. The rising rhythm of the text aptly resonates with the depressed mental state of the speaker.


Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Atwood makes use of the following literary devices in “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”.

  • Metaphor: The text contains a number of metaphors. For example, “the dangerous river of his own birth” is a metaphor of identity. Besides, this device can also be found in “his head a bathysphere”, “cairn of my plans and future charts”, and “The dreamed sails”.
  • Enjambment: This device is used within a tercet as well across the whole text. Atwood uses this device in order to connect the lines internally. The device forces one to read consecutive lines in order to grasp the meaning. For instance, it occurs in “He, who navigated with success/ the dangerous river of his own birth/ once more set forth” and so on.
  • Irony: Readers can find the use of irony in “the dangerous river of his own birth”, “reckless adventurer/ on a landscape stranger than Uranus”, etc. Atwood employs this device to create situational contrast of ideas.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds can be found in the following phrases: “touch to”, “his head”, “he was hung”, “It was the spring, the sun kept shining,” etc.
  • Personification: It occurs in “the currents took him” and “the new grass/ leapt to solidity”. In these lines, “currents” and “grass” are personified.
  • Simile: It occurs in “on a landscape stranger than Uranus”, “he was hung in the river like a heart”, and “I planted him in this country/ like a flag.”


Themes

Margaret Atwood’s “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” explores the themes of death, loss, identity, and the mother-son relationship. The main idea of this poem indeed encapsulates the theme of death. Yet there are some ideas that are not limited to this theme only. For reference, the line at the beginning “the dangerous river of his own birth” is not about death. It is about the metaphorical “river” of one’s cultural identity. Apart from that, the major idea concerns the central character’s adventure to distant regions. On such a journey of self-exploration, the character dies. His mother expresses her grief in the text. This piece also revolves around the theme of the transience of life as well.


Line-by-Line Analysis

Lines 1-3

He, who navigated with success

the dangerous river of his own birth

once more set forth

The opening stanza of “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” refers to the main character, the “young son”. The speaker’s thoughts revolve around him. In the beginning, she says that her son was successful in finding his own roots. The metaphorical “river” of his own birth is nothing but a reference to one’s true identity. It seems the narrator and her family settled down in a new place. Its culture was different from her own. So her son was drawn towards his identity. According to her, though being successful in the first attempt, he set forth again. This time to explore the physical regions of the place.

Lines 4-6

on a voyage of discovery

into the land I floated on

but could not touch to claim.

This section is enjambed with the previous one. Here, the speaker describes how her son started a voyage in the new region. He walked out of his home to discover the land. In the following line, the speaker ironically talks about the distance between her and the country. She could not claim it as her own place. According to her, she floated on the land as if she was voyaging by a ship on alien waters. She was unable to touch the land to claim it as her own. This line hints at the idea that the characters in the poem were not native to the place where the son died.

Lines 7-9

His feet slid on the bank,

the currents took him;

he swirled with ice and trees in the swollen water

In the third tercet of “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”, the speaker directly talks about the main idea of the poem. It is about the death of her son. One day, he slipped from the bank of a river and the rash currents engulfed him. His body swirled with ice and trees in the frozen river.

The imagery of the river tells much more than it actually signifies. Firstly, the “swollen water” is a metaphor for the alien culture. For the settlers, it was impenetrable. They needed to lose themselves in this culture and forget theirs. This line can also be interpreted as a specimen of nature’s cruel manifestation.

Lines 10-12

and plunged into distant regions,

his head a bathysphere;

through his eyes’ thin glass bubbles

Afterward, his body plunged into distant regions. In the next lines, the speaker imagines what might have occurred with her son. Atwood compares his head to a “bathysphere”. It is a spherical-shaped chamber used to study the depth of a sea. An observer sits inside a bathysphere and peeps through the porthole.

Atwood compares his head to this air-tight chamber. The soul inside the son’s body peeps through the eyes. According to the speaker, her son’s lifeless body witnessed the Unknown depths of the water through his eyes. Besides, this chamber of one’s mind reflects a sense of alienation. A person feels the same when he is alienated in a new place. It feels as if his soul is trapped inside an air-tight bathysphere.

Lines 13-15

he looked out, reckless adventurer

on a landscape stranger than Uranus

we have all been to and some remember.

In the fifth tercet, the speaker dejectedly says that her son was a “reckless adventurer”. He failed to sense the dangers. All he wanted was to discover this new place but he was not aware of the impending tragedy.

When he looked outside, he found the landscape was stranger than Uranus. The term “Uranus” is a metaphor for the sky. Here, Atwood refers to the space outside the earth’s atmosphere that is both stranger and unknown to human beings. Likewise, this new place was as strange as the space outside.

The last line refers to the region of death. Humans have been to this place but some remember. It can also be a reference to the subconscious mind. Most of us are unfamiliar with this region inside our own minds.

Lines 16-18

There was an accident; the air locked,

he was hung in the river like a heart.

They retrieved the swamped body,

The sixth stanza again returns to the tragic incident. Atwood’s speaker talks about how her son died. The accident took her son away from her. She imagines how her son might have died.

According to her, when he slipped into the frozen river, the air locked. He died of suffocation. It seems like he was hung in the river like a silent “heart”. The term “heart” is a metaphor of the most precious thing of the speaker. Besides, the poet depicts the river as a human body and the son as its heart.

Later, his body was retrieved from the water. This line is enjambed with the first line of the following stanza.

Lines 19-21

cairn of my plans and future charts,

with poles and hooks

from among the nudging logs.

In the first line, the poet uses a metaphor. She compares the boy to a “cairn” of her mother’s plans. He was like a compass for her future. Her thoughts revolve around the well-being of her child.

She thought one day her son was going to guide her. When he faced the accident, he could not even come out of the water. These lines create a contrast between the mother’s thoughts and reality.

His body was taken out of the frozen water with poles and hooks tied to the nudging logs. This line depicts the harsh reality of someone’s death.

Lines 22-24

It was spring, the sun kept shining, the new grass

leapt to solidity;

my hands glistened with details.

This stanza of “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” contains another contrast. Here, Atwood contrasts the mental state of the speaker with nature. It was spring, the month of life and rejuvenation. The sun kept shining and the new grass raised their heads. Here, the poet personifies the grass and invests it with the idea of leaping to solidity.

Though nature was teeming with life, the young son was frozen to death. In the meantime, the mother’s hand glistened with the details of her past. In this way, Atwood contrasts life with death.

Lines 25-27

After the long trip I was tired of waves.

My foot hit rock. The dreamed sails

collapsed, ragged.

In this section, the speaker talks about her own life. It was a long trip. After her son’s death, she felt extremely weary of this journey. On that day, her foot hit the rock. Here, the poet compares the speaker to a bark. Her son’s death was an unseen rock beneath the water. The ship of her life hit the rock and it collapsed.

When her son was alive, he was like the sails of her ship. She set out on this journey with the direction of her son. When he died it not only made her halt but also submerged her into the depths of agony and mental suffering.

Lines 28-29

I planted him in this country

like a flag.

In the last two lines of the poem “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”, the speaker does not break down into tears. Her son’s death took away all her emotions. She became silent both from the inside and outside. For this reason, she calmly says that he planted him like a flag in this country.

Here, Atwood compares the son to a “flag” or a token of his identity. He was not buried. Rather planted like a flag that bore the mark of his adventurous life.

Tone & Mood

The tone of “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” is serious, sad, and hopeless. Atwood employs a sad tone in order to describe the tragic incident. Besides, the text is told from the perspective of a mother who has lost her son. The sadness of staying away from her own country was already heavy on her mind. Her son’s death increased the burden of her pain. Regarding the mood of the poem, it is helpless, melancholic, and depressing. The mood of the text reflects the mental state of the speaker. She is in a broken state. Losing her son, not only made her suffer internally but also took away her hope to live. This feeling is aptly portrayed through the lines of the poem.

Imagery

Readers can find the following types of imagery in “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”.

  • Visual Imagery: Atwood uses visual imagery in the third stanza. Here, she describes how the young son fell off the bank and drowned in the river. She also uses this type of imagery in the following stanzas.
  • Tactile Imagery: The images associated with the feeling of touch can be found in “but could not touch to claim”, “my hands glistened with details”, and “My foot hit rock”.
  • Kinesthetic Imagery: The imagery related to the idea of motion or movement can be found in “the currents took him;/ he swirled with ice and trees in the swollen water”. Here, the image of the boy’s drowning is portrayed.
  • Organic Imagery: This type of imagery is used by the poet in order to convey the inner emotions of the speaker that include sadness, frustration, and agony. For instance, her grief is conveyed through the following lines: “They retrieved the swamped body, / cairn of my plans and future charts”.


Setting & Speaker

In “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”, the speaker is the mother of the deceased boy. She and her son settled down in Canada. The setting of the poem is based on the 20th century Canada. In the text, Atwood uses the first-person narration technique in order to express the mother’s grief-stricken story. Besides, she also depicts the Canadian landscape of winter as well as of summer. Atwood describes the hopelessness in the modern world in a few instances.


Historical Context

“Death of a Young Son by Drowning” appears in Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie. It was first published in 1970. Susanna Moddie was a Canadian author from whose perspective this collection is written. In this collection, Atwood conveys Moodie’s feelings about life in Canada. Moodie wrote mainly about her experiences as a settler in colonial Canada. She is remembered for her memoir Roughing it in the Bush, published in 1852. Her works and poetry influenced Atwood to write the Journals.

In the poem “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”, Moodie’s persona talks about her son’s unfortunate death and life in 20th century Canada. It appears in Journal II covering the years 1840-1871 of Moodie’s life. In Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853), Moodie noted about her son’s death in the Moira River. It was a key incident of her life while accepting her new land.


FAQs

What is “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” about?

Margaret Atwood’s “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” is about the death of a boy by drowning in a river. He froze to death and later his swamped body was recovered with the help of hooks. His mother talks about this sad incident in this piece that happened with her when she was settling in a new place.

When did Margaret Atwood write “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”?

The poem “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” was first published in 1970 in Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie. It is the first poem of the second journal that encompasses the events happening in Susanna Moodie’s life 1841-1870.

What type of poem is “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”?

It is a free-verse lyric poem that is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. There is no set rhyme scheme or meter in the text. It consists of nine tercets, ending with a couplet.

Who is the speaker in “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”?

The speaker of the poem is none other than Susanna Moodie on whose life events the collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie was written. Atwood describes the death of her son in the poem.

Where did the speaker’s son drown in Margaret Atwood’s poem “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”?

Susanna Moodie noted about her son’s death in the Moira River in her memoir Life in the Clearings (1853). So, the speaker’s son drowned in that river.

What is the tone of “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”?

The tone of “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” is despairing, somber, and sad. It has a melancholic touch as it is about the unfortunate death of the speaker’s son.


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