Within ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ Motion explores themes of labor, the purpose (or futility) of life, and manhood. The mood is contemplative and calm as the speaker describes the men, their actions, and the pier they are building. A reader is asked to consider the purpose of their work, where it concludes, and the differences between the onlooker and the men he studied.
Explore From the Journal of a Disappointed Man
The poem takes the reader through the narrator’s initial impression of the men and then how that impression evolves as he studies them. He admits his fascination with their actions and minds and eventually comes to different conclusions about their inner lives and the dynamic between them and the rest of the world.
You can read the full poem here.
‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ by Andrew Motion is an eleven stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, although the lines are quite similar in length. They all contain somewhere between nine and thirteen syllables per line. The speaker’s voice is educated and clear, making all the details easy to take in and understand.
Motion makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ these include metaphor, alliteration, enjambment, and symbolism. The latter, symbolism, is when a poet uses objects, colors, sounds, or places to represent something else. The most important symbol in this piece is that of the pier. It represents life without purpose, or work without a satisfying conclusion. The pier extends out into the water, going nowhere.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “water” and “wire” in the first lines of stanza two and “nearest” and “nothing” in the first line of stanza six.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a few examples in this piece, such as in the transitions between lines two and three of the first stanzas well as two and three of the eighth.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
The poem begins as one might expect, with what sounds like a diary entry. The speaker is describing a sight he came upon one day that fuels the entire poem. It was a group of men building a pier. They were driving a “new pile into the pier”. The “p” sound is repeated again in the second, third, and fourth lines of this stanza, greatly benefiting the overall rhythm of From the Journal of a Disappointed Man.
He lists out the different tools and items the men had with them while emphasizing the great effort that it takes to complete their task. There is a solid internal rhyme in the third line with “chains” and “cranes”. It sticks out somewhat amongst the rest of the text in this stanza that feels more narrative.
The words “massive style” remind the reader again of the strength and determination these men must embody to complete their tasks. Luckily, they have tools to help them. The word “men” is repeated three times in this stanza, creating a distance between the speaker, who is likely a man, and these “powerful,” “silent” men. In fact, the speaker states explicitly that the men ignored him.
Unlike the speaker who is clearly interesting in “Speech,” it was not something that interested the working men. They were silent until they had to say something like “‘Let go”, or “Hold tight”’. Their words, unlike the speaker’s, were all “monosyllables”. He uses words like “paraphernalia” and “Nevertheless”.
The fourth line of the third stanza is enjambed, encouraging the reader to move down to the next stanza quickly.
In the next lines of ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man,’ the speaker describes how he was able to interpret their hardship through their “obscure movements”. He could see that they were “up against a great difficulty” even though the men said nothing and did their best not to outwardly reveal their struggle. Enjambment is used throughout this stanza as well.
The distance between the speaker and the other men grows in the fifth stanza. He feels very separate from them, so much he calls then “monsters”. This displays his lack of connection or understanding of how they work and why.
He admits to his own bafflement over the scene, but he does come to a conclusion. The men are not invested in what they’re doing. In fact, they are “indifferent / and tired of the whole business”. This presumably influences how they move and act.
Stanzas Six and Seven
The indifference and strength are depicted clearly in the sixth stanza. Here, the speaker describes one man who appears as though he could “go on swinging until the crack of Doom,” or the end of the world.
In contrast to the men, the speaker is not indifferent to their work. He watched for an hour, at least. He focused on them, thinking deeply and philosophically about what they’re doing.
The monsters are men again, but they are still “massive”. They stopped working one after another but still did not speak. As the narrator studied the men, they gazed down into the water. The use of a simile in this line is interesting, it helps convey the inner lives of these men. Showing them to be more than just machines or monsters.
One man, out of an unknown number, spit chewing tobacco into the water and watched its slow descent into the depths. This creates an interesting juxtaposition with the reference to them as mystics in the previous stanza. The speaker is taking on the perspective of the men at this point as well. He can see more of what they’re doing.
The word “thinker” is used to describe the “foreman” in the first line of the tenth stanza of ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’. This alludes to a philosophical depth that the narrator did not originally interpret or convey. There is something otherworldly about these men. The speaker is able to see, in part, what they’re doing and thinking, but the two things are disconnected. They are a part of two different worlds, one the speaker is familiar with and one that insured him to call them monsters.
In the last stanza of ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ the men walk away from their construction site. When the foreman leaves, so do everyone else. All that was left at the end was the “pile still in mid-air” and the speaker. It floats there, waiting to be put to use but suspended between one action and the next. It represents a liminal space that these men also exist in. Lastly, there is the speaker who is left alone. He’s there, without direction or conclusion. This connects back to the men and their disinterest in the pier, and the symbol of the pier itself.