‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’ by A. K. Ramanujan is a ninety-one line poem that is divided into sets of three and four lines, as well as single, solitary lines of verse. The poem is written in free verse. This means that there is no rhyme scheme or metrical pattern to the lines. In fact, if there was, the poem would make a lot less sense. The chaotic nature of the images and their associations are integral to the story. If they were to be structured and rhymed they would have a lot less of an impact.
One of the most obvious techniques in ‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’ is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in the second stanza, “lost long”, which appears twice. In line seventeen there is another example with “for fines” and another in line twenty with “long lines”. These are only a few of the many within the poem.
Another technique used very effectively is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One is forced to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. Examples exist throughout the poem, such as at the end of line nine.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that everything that comes into his house always stays. Or, if it leaves, it eventually comes back again. As soon becomes clear, the speaker really does mean everything. Some of the many “small-scale” things on his list are cows, “prostitute songs,” wives and soldiers, books, phonographs, and cloth.
Some of the most important things that come into the house, and stay there, are beliefs. In one example the speaker describes how the women are made to follow traditional gender roles and in another how a neighbour brought a dish of sweets for a god’s wedding anniversary.
Towards the end of the poem the examples take a darker turn. The speaker starts to talk about war, and the men in the family who have gone off to fight. One man went as far as the Sahara but came back “gnawed by desert foxes”. This seems like quite a depressing thing to have happen, but the second man the speaker mentions came back in body alone.
He died while fighting and had a complicated route back to the house. Despite the distance, he did come home , and this is the main theme of the poem. That nothing is meaningless in a family. All its quirks, bits of trivia and important history belong to the home and can’t be separated from future generations.
Analysis of Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House
In the first lines of ‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’ the speaker begins by describing a house. This house is special because everything comes into it, and nothing goes out. The speaker means this physically, emotionally, and mentally. He describes how things come into the house every day, and “lose themselves among other things”. The things pile up on top of other things, all of which came into the house at varying times.
In these lines, time and accumulation appear to be important to the speaker. Whatever phenomenon is occurring inside the house, it has been going on for a long time. So far, it seems as though the speaker is interested in talking about history, specifically family, or genealogical history, and how it is built up over generations.
In the next set of lines of ‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’ the speaker goes into detail about some of the things which end up inside the house. The first, are “wandering cows”. All of a sudden they’re at the house, and it is unclear where they came from. The speaker describes how from within the house, girls would look out on the street and observe the female cows being impregnated by the males.
It is interesting how the speaker exposes these animals by emphasizing the “broad daylight”. of the situation. This speaks to something untoward, not in the behaviour of the cows, but if that same behaviour were too be replicated by human beings. This is emphasized by the fact that the girls inside the house feel as though they need to hide “behind windows with holes in them” to watch the animals. Additionally, it is interesting how the speaker refers to the cows as supervised by the elders. The older members of the family are responsible for these animals.
The speaker goes on to describe a few other items within the house. There are “unread library books”, which go bad very quickly. The speaker does not make clear what he means by “mature,” but, it could refer to the fact that they have become overdue at the library. Or, that those who were initially interested in them have cast them to the side without a second thought. As they lay maturing in the house, they turned into homes for silverfish. These bugs leave “little eggs in the ledgers”. Specifically, the eggs appear where the library fines would be listed.
This line moves into the next, with the speaker describing the “old man’s office room.” The actions of the silver fish are further explained in this section. The books they nest in have been discarded for such a long time, that the creatures have been able to “breed dynasties among long legal words”. This contrast strikingly with the “Victorian parchment” which should have an intrinsic worth.
The next stanza of ‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’ speaks about community, and the dishes which were brought in by the neighbours. Nothing in this poem is contemporary. Everything, so far at least, has happened in the past. The neighbours brought in “greasy sweets“ a few days ago, “for the wedding anniversary ever God”. This speaks to the predominance of the Hindu religion throughout India. But also gives the
Spirituality act of feeding a God a feeling of the commonplace. The dishes have been left behind, as though they were dishes for any living person.
Line twenty-seven of ‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’ begins by reiterating the fact that these dishes, along with everything else, are never going to leave the house they entered.
Over the next few lines the items, people, and experiences build upon one another quickly. Some of the things that never leave the house are servants and “phonographs,” the latter of reference to old-fashioned record players. Less tangibly, epilepsy in the blood does not easily leave a home. This is a very clear reference to family history, specifically, blood relations. With this line a reader can confirm the poet’s interest in tracing the history of his family through what the house has seen. He goes on, describing sons-in-law who forget their mothers but stay in the house for other reasons.
There are young women who enter into the house from orthodox families and have to observe certain rituals. These are centred around the comings and goings of the monsoons and calendar dates. Another important aspect which can be found in association with the young women, and the household are banana trees. The leaves, which have a number of uses, reference traditional mealtime practices, including dietary restrictions.
For the first time, the next stanza allows something to leave the house. As soon as it exits, it “will come back“. But, it is often changed. He speaks about these things exiting and coming back with “long bills attached“. At this point is unclear what the speaker is referring to, but beginning in line forty-three, it becomes evident.
In lines forty-three to forty-eight the speaker describes “hooped bales of cotton”. These are some of the items that leave the family, and return processed. The cotton in particular goes off to “invisible Manchesters”. And when it comes back, it is “milled and folded”. This is a simple reference to the way it is processed within a factory. There are different kinds of cloth in the family, kinds for a “middle-class loins” and another cheap fabric, “muslin,” which the speaker says is for “richer nights”.
The next stanza of ‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’ speaks about letters. In this case, as with everything else in the house, the letters have a way of “finding their way back”. But, it’s not always an easy process. There are often markings on the letters which tell of the various twists and turns they took along way to find their way back to the house. This is one of the clearest metaphors within the poem. It speaks directly to the way that family members emerge from the household, enter out into the wider world, and after a time, drift back to the family home. These people would be changed, and “marked” by their experiences.
This interpretation is solidified when the speaker describes ideas, and the way they “behave like rumours”. These rumours come and go from their origins, twisting and changing, but eventually coming back as “prodigies / born to prodigal fathers”. These children return to their families but, only “vaguely look like” the people they remember.
The next lines are a little bit vaguer. But, they refer to Alexander the great and his exploits in India. It is not specifically Alexander the speaker is interested in talking about, rather those like him. These are the people who come to the country, take information, of any variety, and bring it back to their homes. Then there are others, such as the philosopher Plontinus who use the information relayed to them and cite it as their own.
Moving away from distant history, but still in the realm of storytelling, the speaker describes how a beggar came to the house and sang a “prostitute song”. After hearing the tune, the cook sang it repetitively in the backyard of the house. There is nothing that the family can keep from becoming part of their history. Through surprising means and twists of fate objects, people, songs and stories become integral pieces of a family‘s history.
Perhaps in reference to the previous lines about prodigal sons and their progeny, the speaker describes how often times children of sons come back and “recite Sanskrit / to approving old men”. These are the grandchildren who are learning the history of India and are looked upon favourably by their grandparents.
Additionally, the speaker describes visiting uncles. These family members come with stories to tell of the fathers who are not present. They are “anecdotes”, a choice of word that should lead a reader to question the veracity of the stories.
As the poem begins to come to an end, the speaker describes how often times water from the Ganges River is carried into the house for the dying. This is a common ritual performed in Brahmin families, of which the poet is a part.
The next stanza is a little more confusing. It references how certain family members sometimes go to war, but they come back, even if they are changed. Sometimes they go “as far away as the Sahara”.
In line eighty-two the way that one particular soldier was changed is explained. This person was “gnawed by desert foxes,” suffering, presumably, serious injuries. Another male family member also returned but he came with “stripe/on his shoulder”.
Unfortunately for this man, he was not alive. He was brought back in a plane, and a train, and then a military truck. All of this occurred very efficiently, in fact, the transit of the body reached the family before the telegram notifying them of the death did.