‘Rhyme of the Dead Self’ is an image-rich poem by A.R.D. Fairburn, a New Zealand poet. He died in 1957 in Aukland, and this poem is one of his best-known. In it, readers are asked to confront their opinions of their younger selves and how much they feel they’ve changed since they were “pale” and “lily-white.” Fairburn makes sure to use plenty of juxtaposition within ‘Rhyme of the Dead Self’ in order to prove to the reader how much his speaker has changed.
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Summary of Rhyme of the Dead Self
The speaker uses violent language throughout this piece to depict the process of killing his younger self. He chokes the young man he used to be, digs out his brains, and makes sure that unlike Christ, he won’t rise again on the third day. The speaker clearly feels as though the presence of this young man in his mind is doing him more harm than good. But, it’s hard to imagine that this is truly the case by the time a reader concludes the piece.
You can read the full poem Rhyme of the Dead Self here.
Themes in Rhyme of the Dead Self
In ‘Rhyme of the Dead Self’ the most important themes the poet addresses are transformation and perceptions of the self. These two themes are combined in a violent outburst against the speaker’s perceived younger self. He’s changed so much (he thinks for the better) that any bit of his lingering “lily-white” daydreaming younger self is problematic. This transformation came over time, likely so much time that he didn’t notice that it was happening. Now, as he looks back over his life, he’s outraged and angered by who he used to be. It is impossible to read this poem without wondering what could possibly have offended him so intensely about his prior self to encourage this kind of outburst. What happened in this speaker’s life that killed his purest dreams?
Structure and Form of Rhyme of the Dead Self
‘Rhyme of the Dead Self’ by A.R.D. Fairburn is a three-stanza poem that is separated out into quatrains or sets of four lines. These lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB, with several half-rhymes interspersed throughout. For example, “lad” and “bed” in the first stanza and “day” and “aye” in the final stanza. A half-rhyme is a rhyme in which only part of the two words align. This is usually a specific consonant sound, like the “d” in the first example or a vowel, or assonant, sound such as in the second example.
Literary Devices in Rhyme of the Dead Self
Fairburn makes use of several literary devices in ‘Rhyme of the Dead Self.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, alliteration. The latter is a type of repetition that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “heighho” and “holly” in line two of the second stanza and “sloughed” and “snakeskin” in line three of the third stanza.
Enjambment is a common formal device used in poetry when the poet cuts off a sentence or phrase before it reaches its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between line one of the first stanza and line two. The majority of the lines in ‘Rhyme of the Dead Self’ are enjambed.
Imagery is another interesting literary device that’s incredibly important to creating memorable and moving poetry. Without skillful imagery, readers won’t be able to imagine the scene, event, or ideas at play in a poem. The following lines from the second stanza are a good example “Then chuckling I dragged out his foolish brains / that were full of pretty love-tales heighho the holly.”
Analysis of Rhyme of the Dead Self
Tonight I have taken all that I was
catching him as he lay a-dreaming in his bed.
In the first stanza of ‘Rhyme of the Dead Self,’ the speaker begins by using imagery to craft a vision of him strangling his younger self. He depicts his previous self as a “pale lily-white lad.” When he looks back on how he used to view writing and the world, this is what he sees—someone who is innocent and unknowledgeable about how the world works. The violence of metaphorically “strangling” this past self is important. He isn’t setting this person gently to the side in order to address the world through new eyes; he’s murdering his old self as though he did something very wrong.
The image goes on depicting the two differently. The younger self is daydreaming in bed while the present self is using his “claws” to choke the life out of himself. The younger self is obviously quite wistful. He likely had an unrealistic view of what the world was like, perhaps specifically in regards to writing.
Then chuckling I dragged out his foolish brains
those dreams of love oh what ruinous folly.
The violence continues in the second stanza when the speaker describes dragging out his younger self’s “foolish brains.” They were full of “pretty love-tales.” He had a vision of the world that was completely idealized, the speaker is saying. But, something changed in him. Something killed the version of the world he used to believe in. It was filled with “dreams of love,” which he now calls “ruinous folly.” Either now, the speaker doesn’t believe in love at all, or he has a new opinion of what is possible when it comes to love.
In this stanza, Fairburn uses some unusual words like “holus bolus.” This refers to doing something all at once. So, he emptied the young mind’s mind all t once of the dreams of love.
He is dead pale youth and he shall not rise
and he shall not trouble me again for aye.
In the third and final stanza of the poem, the speaker adds that the youth “shall no rise” like Christ did on the “third day.” Nor shall he rise on “any other day.” The young man is as dead as it is possible to be. He’s been shed, as a snake sheds its skin, and will not trouble the speaker for anything ever again. Now, the speaker is supposedly liberated of this past self. But it is impossible not to wonder if the speaker lost more than he gained in removing this part of himself.
Readers who enjoyed Rhyme of the Dead Self’ should also consider reading some related pieces like ‘Self-Interrogation’ by Emile Brontë, ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits’ by Elizabeth Jennings, and ‘Can Someone Bring Me My Entire Self’ by Noshi Gillani. The latter is about fitting in and finding one’s place in the world, while the first, ‘Self-Interrogation,’ contains the poet’s musings before her death as she tries to see her life in full. ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits’ is a creative poem in which the speaker describes the way in which Rembrandt, through all of his work, but especially his late self-portraits, took an honest look at himself and others.