‘I Sit and Sew’ by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of seven lines. These stanzas following a rhyming pattern of AABBCCD, that rotates with the poet’s choice of end rhymes. Within each stanza the reader will notice that the poet has chosen to repeat the title of the poem, “I sit and sew.” This short phrase acts as a refrain and mimics the speaker’s own circling, obsessive thoughts about her place in the world.
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Summary of I Sit and Sew
The poem begins with the speaker stating that her hands and head have grown tired of the task she is forced to, sewing. This is her lot in life as a woman, and society would not allow her to set off, as she will describe she wants to, and help those in need. She dreams, when her mind allows it, of the “panoply of war” and of all those who fight and suffer within it. She sees the fallen men and those who have defeated their enemies. This is a world that she longs for, she wants to know something of real life.
In the second stanza, she describes the terrible fields of war and how those who have fought on them are there dying. She longs to leave her own world behind and set out to help these men. Her soul is “yearning” to go there. Finally, the speaker gets to the point where she is desperate and asks God directly if sitting and sewing is all that her life is going to be about. Is there nothing more that she can do to help those around her? She does not receive an answer.
Analysis of I Sit and Sew
I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—
The panoply of war, the martial tred of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But—I must sit and sew.
The poem begins with the speaker stating the title of the poem, which works as a refrain throughout all three stanzas. She is sitting and sewing, something that she does not take any pleasure in. It is an act to which she is forced as a woman, by societal norms. She feels it’s uselessness and knows that what she spends her time on has no purpose at all.
Her hands are tired of the movements and tired from the knowledge of the action itself. She feels utter exhaustion for her place in the world and her “head” is “weighed down with dreams” These dreams are then detailed in the following lines. She wants to know so much more than her place in the world permits her. The speaker is dreaming of the “panoply of war” and the marching of men who are “Grim-faced” and have surmounted the obstacle of their foes. These are people who, she thinks, have truly seen the world. They live their lives and are not forced to “hold their lives but as a breath.”
While she has this knowledge of the world, she is unable to participate in anything but her sewing.
I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.
In the second stanza, she once more begins by repeating the opening refrain, that she must sit and sew all throughout the day. This act must continue, even though her “heart aches with desire” for something more. She feels a need to experience something “terrible” like the “pouring fire / On wasted fields.” She wants to see and know true destruction, the polar opposite of the world she does know.
Even though it is terrible, she longs to see these “wasted fields, and writing grotesque things / Once men.” Not only does she want to see these sights, but she would also really like to be there “in that holocaust of hell” and feel the “fields of woe.” There is no chance of that happening though, as she fully knows. All she is allowed to do is “sit and sew.”
The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?
In the final stanza of the poem the speaker once more addresses the fact that what she spends her day doing is useless. The “seams” she stitches and the tiny patches of fabric that she “idly” works on are nothing compared to what others see and do every day.
Her life will continue in this manner and she will, unfortunately, “dream…beneath [her] homely thatch” while others suffer. There are people all over the world that “lie in sodden mud and rain.” She can feel them calling to her and she believes they need her help.
The speaker feels an intense need to help others no matter the horrific circumstance they are in. She does not dream of rosey things, nothing beautiful “beckons her.”
She is unable to go to any of these places or help any of the people who she feels so desperately need her. She is stifled and contained by the “pretty futile seam” of her sewing. In the final lines she asks God if this is truly all she is meant to do, does she have to just “sit and sew?”
About Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson
Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in July of 1875. Alice attended Straight University where she completed a teaching program, and later went on to study at Cornell University as well as the University of Pennsylvania. She spent the majority of her life teaching students of all ages.
Her first volume of works, Violets, and Other Tales, was published in 1895. She was married two years later to the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar. The couple was to separate about seven years later and she would remarry two more times. Her volumes, Poems of Cabin and Field, which was published in 1889, established her as an important writer of Creole culture and a participant in the Harlem Renaissance. Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in September of 1935.