The poem is filled with examples of imagery and made even more complex through the use of the hair as a symbol for loss. While lost hair represents a loss of one kind to the listener, it also signals a change in their understanding of the world. Life isn’t going to stay the same forever. Huge changes are going to occur without their permission or understanding and make life more painful.
Explore The Tantrum
‘The Tantrum’ by A.E. Stallings is a moving and image-rich poem about a child’s reaction to their mother cutting her hair.
The child throws a tantrum when they see their mother, smiling like a stranger, after cutting off her “mermaid hair.” This sudden change signaled an important shift in “your” world. Now, the listener knew that life was never going to be the same again. If their mother could change so dramatically in a short period of time, what else could be lost? As the poem progresses, the child continues to weep. The text concludes with a confirmation of what they knew, that the mother never grew her hair back out and that losses cannot be so easily remedied.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout ‘The Tantrum,’ Stallings engages with themes of loss and mother/child relationships. The speaker, someone who is close to “you,” the intended listener, knows how “you” felt when your mother cut her hair. While for most people, this wouldn’t be interpreted as a loss at all, for the listener, it was world-changing. It proved that life wasn’t always going to stay the same. Changes and transformations were going to occur. The mother’s hair is a symbol for broader and more enduring losses to come. And, when the listener was told that the mother could grow her hair back out, they knew that it would never be the same again. Once suffered, a loss can’t be remedied so easily.
Structure and Form
‘The Tantrum’ by A.E. Stallings is a six-stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets, and one final single-line stanza. The sixteen lines of the poem follow a rhyme scheme of ABA CDC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The final line ends with the word “wrong,” which rhymes with “long,” the ending of the second line of the fifth stanza. Stallings chose not to structure this piece with a specific metrical pattern, but the majority of the lines do visually appear to be the same.
Throughout ‘The Tantrum,’ Stallings makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and line three of the third stanza, and line one of the fourth.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “mother” and “mermaid” and “stood,” “stranger,” and “smiling” in the first stanza.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. This is done either through the use of meter or through punctuation. For example, “Struck with grief you were, though only four” and “But brave and fashionable. The golden rings.”
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly memorable and evocative descriptions. For example, “The golden rings / That fringed her naked neck.”
Struck with grief you were, though only four,
And stood, a stranger, smiling at the door.
In the first stanza of ‘The Tantrum,’ the speaker begins by looking back on an event from “your” life. The use of second-person pronouns in this poem is an interesting one. It makes it obvious that the speaker is thinking about a specific person while also allowing the reader to imagine themselves in the role of “you.”
They’re thinking about the time that “you” got so upset after your mother cut her hair. She appeared like a stranger after it was cut off, as though she was an entirely different person. The use of the word “mermaid” in the second line to describe what her hair looked like before evokes a very particular image. It also connects with the young four-year-old subject.
They frowned, tsk-tsked your willful, cruel despair,
And sobbed until your lungs hiccupped for air,
The four-year-old main character, “you,” got incredibly upset about this change. You went and hid under the piano and “sobbed until your lungs hiccupped for air.” The latter phrase is a great example of imagery.
Unbribable with curses, cake, playthings.
But brave and fashionable. The golden rings
There was nothing anyone could do to get the listener to come out from under the piano. No one could soothe “you” as you mourn your mother. With her hair gone, her identity and connection to “you” seemed broken. She made a change that “you” saw as “fashionable” and “brave,” but not one that your mother would make. She was beyond those things. The next stanza elucidates this issue more clearly.
That fringed her naked neck, whom were they for?
A full eclipse. You wept down on the floor;
It’s clear the listener has an issue with why the mother cut her hair. It wasn’t for herself but for the “world, now in your place / A full eclipse.” It appears the listener thinks her mother changed herself for other people, rather than making a change she truly wanted to make, as though she wanted to conform. This felt like a betrayal to “you.”
She wept up in her room. They told you this:
They told you, lying always about loss,
The poem starts to draw to its conclusion when the speaker describes how your mother wept in her room while you wept downstairs, both grieving for similar although not entirely identical reasons. The rest of the family, and perhaps friends too, told “you” that it was easily possible for her to grow her hair back out “just as long.” But, you knew then that that would never happen. Something had been broken that couldn’t be set right again.
An interesting line appears at the end of the final tercet. The speaker says, “lying always about loss.” This suggests that the speaker’s experience, and/or the listener’s experience, is one in which loss is something either hidden or obscured. It has been made, on more than one occasion, into something it’s not.
For you know she never did. And they were wrong.
The final line confirms what “you” knew about the mother’s hair, that it was never as long as it once was. “They,” the family members and friends, were “wrong.” Loss is something that, once experienced, cannot be taken back.
The meaning is that loss and change are inevitable parts of life, ones that, for a young child, seem incredibly unfair and traumatizing. The listener learned this lesson when they were four years old and knew even then that life would never be the same.
The speaker is someone who was close to “you” or still is close. They’re telling the story, relaying clearly the events of the days around the mother’s haircut. Perhaps they’re a friend or family member.
The “you” is an unknown character who, at the time that the events of the poem were taking place, was four years old. They had a deep understanding of loss and the future from a young age, one that manifested itself, complicatedly, through a child’s misplaced emotions.
The tone is narrative and clear. The speaker was not the one who experienced the loss, so they’re able to take a more objective approach to the situation. They know how upset the listener was and are accurately able to convey that sorrow, though.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Tantrum’ should also consider reading other A.E. Stallings poems. For example:
- ‘Epic Simile’ – uses a simile of an epic hero longing for a hero’s death to depict how as one seeks out happiness, it may become more allusive and harder to enjoy than it was to begin with.
- ‘Olives’ – describes how the olives taste in different cases and why the speaker likes these “small bitter drupes.”
- ‘Apotropaic’ – is a clever poem that personifies Evil and depicts how easy it is for “him” to take on various guises, such as that of someone old and meek.