Apology for Understatement explores two lovers, with one of them failing to find the words to express himself. He excuses himself for ‘praise[ing] too low’, wanting his lover to know that he cannot find the correct words. The poem explores language, and how sometimes actions truly can speak louder than words.
The poem spans four stanzas of three lines, with a final resolution line separated from the rest of the poem. There is a consistent rhyme across the stanzas, with a rhyme on the last word of the first line. Moreover, the second and third lines in each stanza also rhyme. This melodious rhythm flowing throughout the poem intends to soften the poem, which further relates its content to love. The tone is one of soft admiration, with the employment of Iambic pentameter fitting the atmosphere well. The choice to have a rhyming couplet in each stanza also feeds back into this sense of unity. Although the speaker cannot articulate himself, there is a sense of connection which runs through the poem. You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Apology for Understatement
The poem begins with a request, ‘Forgive me’, instantly pulling the reader into the poem with the pretence of finding out more. The soft colloquial language used also sets the relationship between the two people as one being incredibly close. There is no need for formality between these people and that is established within the first line.
The use of the personal pronoun, ‘I’ within the first line and indeed the whole poem further elevates the intimacy of the poem. We, the readers, are looking on this scene through the eyes of one of the lovers. This position is both incredibly personal, but one of understanding, we too are seemingly lost for words as we piece together the poem.
Reticence is another word for being reserved, and the second line is explaining that his deep respect (‘reverence’) for her is leading to his inability to express himself with words.
The final image of the first stanza is one of ‘laying on of hands’. This focus on the personal hand holding is an imagistic portrayal of love, with the two speakers being connected both physically and mentally. When also coupled with the idea of ‘silence’, the image takes on a romantic appearance.
This stanza echos the first in its starting with ‘Forgive me’. The flow from the first to the second stanza is seamless, with the link by repetition and by rhyme scheme allowing the pome to glide easily. This is a representation of the relationship within the poem, with the unity of the couple being presented by the connected stanzas.
The speaker is constantly demeaning his own words, describing them as ‘thin and slow’, unable to describe correctly his lover. Again the speaker is trying to explain that he cannot summarise his ‘praise’ for the woman.
This stanza begins with an odd statement, ‘we only utter what we lightly know.’ Here the speaker is suggesting that it is easy to discuss something we know little of. This echos the sentiment that people who know little will often say a lot. By stating this, the speaker is suggesting he knows his lover so completely, that he finds it hard to describe her. ‘My love knows me’, he is completely connected to his lover and therefore cannot summarise her succinctly.
The third line within this stanza brings into the idea of liberation, ‘set me free.’ Here, the speaker suggests that his complete devotion to love has emancipated him. Perhaps his total physical liberation is another reason why he finds it hard to speak. This point is a slight contradiction, being left to interpretation. Yet, I would argue that he finds so much happiness in his love that he has experienced a sort of emotional awakening – transcending that which he was before.
The two first lines in this poem present two contrasting attempts at communication. Within the first, the speaker has ‘verse’ ready to be spoken. Yet, still he finds this too ‘dressed up’ and won’t speak his sentiments. The second is the opposite, with his ‘glibness’ being taken away. Glibness in speech is insincere and surface level. The speaker is saying that he cannot express himself, neither in grandeur nor in colloquialism.
There is an element of shame which now culminates within this stanza. This is now the third repetition of ‘forgive me’, perhaps the other thing the speaker can actually say. Moreover, the speaker draws attention again to the ‘silence’ protruding over them. Whereas at first this silence seems romantic, there is something slightly awkward about his constant reference to it. Indeed, the speaker acknowledges this and asks for forgiveness over and over.
The speaker’s partner has all the power with the poem. It is she that the speaker is addressing and also she which commands him. The use of ‘you took away’ exemplifies her power, with the amorous infatuation literally living the speaker without words.
The final line exemplifies both elements of the poem: the inability to speak and also the power of the female. First, the speaker admits, ‘it is not words’ that can describe her beauty. Indeed finally giving up on finding the correct way to sing her praise. The power imbalance of the couple is also present, ‘what I owe’, representing the debt one has to the other. This imbalance is a culmination of the subtle awkwardness that pulses throughout the poem. The man wants to ‘pay’ what he ‘owes’, but simply cannot with words.
It is in this moment that the core idea of the poem is suggested. Perhaps when all words have failed, it is only actions that can connect us.
About the John Wain
Born in 1925, John Wain spent the majority of his life as an academic. Teaching in both Reading and Oxford university over the span of almost 30 years. He published 7 collections of poetry and is renown for his wit and cleverness. During the 1950’s he became a part of the poetry group known as ‘The Movement’, which prided itself of the inclusion of the everyday experience. The movement was a rejection of imagistic poetry written both authors such as T.S. Eliot, W.H.Auden and Ezra Pound. Another poet closely related to John Wain within ‘The Movement’ was Philip Larkin.