Anne Stevenson’s ‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ is a beautiful poem about human life and the intricacies of the body. Stevenson is best known as a poet, but also as a biographer of Sylvia Plath. Stevenson won several prestigious awards throughout her life and sadly passed away in September 2020. This piece is contemplative and celebratory in nature.
Explore The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument
Throughout the poem, the speaker emphasizes how incredibly complicated a human child is as well as how perfect the process must progress in order for each tendon and sinew to do what it needs to. She knows that this ability to create doesn’t come from the spirit, instead, it comes from ignorant “habit.” No emotional passion could be responsible, she suggests.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ Stevenson explores themes of life, creation, and possibility. By emphasizing the beauty of the human body and the complex, incredible process it requires to create it, the speaker is alluding to life’s possibilities. She depicts the human body as something that is almost beyond our ability to create but also well within it. The process comes from habit and instinct, something that’s ingrained into our genes. It’s clear that the poet views life as something beautiful, something to be respected and admired.
Structure and Form
‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ by Anne Stevenson is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of nine lines. These stanzas are written in free verse, this means that the poem does not contain a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is a common practice in contemporary, post-modernism as writers have come to the understanding that rhyme is not necessary for making a successful, unified piece of poetry. The literary devices found in ‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ are only one of the ways that the poet creates the feeling of rhyme and rhythm.
Stevenson makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, and caesura. The latter is a formal device that occurs when a poet inserts a pause, either through punctuation or meter, into a poem. For example, the fifth line of the first stanza. It reads: “exacting particulars: the tiny.” There is another good example in the fifth line of the second stanza too. It reads: “ossicles. Imagine the.”
Enjambment is another formal device, one that is concerned with the way that one line transitions into another. For example, if a line is cut off before its natural stopping point, it is likely enjambed. There are many good examples in this piece. For instance, the transition between lines four and five of the first stanza as well as between lines one and two of the second stanza.
Imagery is one of the most important literary devices in ‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument.’ Without it, poems fall flat and readers are left without any lingering feelings or experiences. For instance, the first two lines in the second stanza. They read: “Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent / fingernails, the shell-like complexity.”
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
the chain of the difficult spine.
In the first stanza of ‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument,’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title. She connects the opening line to another, suggesting that the “spirit” could not have “made this baby.” It’s not an exacting enough instrument to have made something as “intricate” as the particulars of the child. It’s too “unskilful” and passionate to focus itself on something as important and complex. The following lines are used to try to prove the speaker’s point by delving into the intricacies of a child. She discusses their “manipulating tendons” and “ganglia and vertebrae.” Each piece has to be crafted perfectly in order for the job to have been done successfully.
Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
already answers to the brain.
In the second stanza of ‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument,’ the speaker asks the reader to take the time to look at the child’s eyelashes and perfectly shaped fingernails. Their ears are “shell-like,” resembling the concentric patterns on a seashell. There are examples of alliteration in these lines with “miniature” and “minute.” The poet enjambed the phrase in the fifth line, requiring the reader to move down to the next line to find out what happens next. There are many parts of the child’s body that aren’t observable and that one has to “imagine” instead. The child comes out with its “completed body” that “already answers to the brain.”
Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
and their pain.
In the final stanza of ‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument,’ the speaker concludes by reiterating her previous statement about the capacity of the spirit, which is ruled by passion, to create a child. No, she adds, this just couldn’t happen. Its instinct and “habit” that creates the perfect that is a new life. The body, on the other hand, is “ignorant” of the complexities and devoid of interfering passions that keep the “spirit” from ever being able to complete such a task.
In the last lines, the speaker adds that the passions that control human actions come from the “mind.” Love and anxiety and others are invented there.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ should also consider reading ‘Child’ by Sylvia Plath and ‘Come Hither, Child’ by Emily Brontë. The first, ‘Child,’ is written from a mother’s perspective, depicting her hope for her child’s future. The poem contrasts the happy future of her son/daughter to the troubled future of the mother. In ‘Come Hither, Child,’ Emily Brontë is named for its first line and depicts a child who is “gifted” with “power” to rise up in the speaker’s thoughts and then the speaker’s own youth.