‘But You Didn’t’ by Merrill Glass is a four stanza poem that is separated into ascending sets of lines. The first stanza contains three, then all the way up to six lines in the fourth stanza. The progression creates an emphasis on the added details it allows for. For instance, there is a lot more information in the fourth stanza than there is in the first. This is important because the last lines contain the turn in the poem’s mood and a reassessment of the poet’s tone on the part of the reader.
It begins quite lighthearted with the speaker tracing her history with her lover. She speaks on moments in which she messed up or forgot something of very little overall importance. No matter what she did, she was always forgiven due to the strength of her relationship with the listener. By the time a reader gets to the last lines and the listener’s fate is revealed, the mood has become dark and very sad.
One of the more straightforward techniques Glass used in this piece is repetition. Anaphora, or the reuse of words at the beginning of a line, appears in the first line of the first three stanzas. Additionally, the last line of every stanza is the same, “But you didn’t.” It means the same thing in the first three stanzas but the last, as mentioned above, gives it a darker even more meaningful connection to the speaker’s life.
There is also a bit of context a reader should know before beginning this piece. Merrill Glass’ husband, who is the intended listener of the poem, died while serving in the army. This loss provides a real backdrop to the piece while also placing Glass herself as the speaker. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of But You Didn’t
‘But You Didn’t’ by Merrill Glass describes the relationship of the poet and and husband and the many things she did not get to tell him.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how she got into a car accident. She feared that her partner would be furious with her for what happened, but that was not the case. He surprised her with his kind reaction. The same formula plays out over the following stanzas as the speaker presents a memory of a mistake she made and the pleasantly measured reaction she got from her husband.
It is in the fourth stanza that the true nature of the poem is revealed. She is not bringing these memories back to the forefront for sentimental reasons or to make some grand gesture, but as a kind of catharsis. Glass informs the reader that her husband died, having not returned from Vietnam. This means she was never able to acknowledge all that he did for her.
Analysis of But You Didn’t
In the first stanza of this piece the Glass begins by asking if her listener remembers the time he lent her his car. Unfortunately for Glass’ husband this act of kindness did not turn out well and the she dented the car. At the moment this happened it was certainly a big deal, something she likely worried over. Her husband’s reaction was more tempered that she expected it to be. The accident did not impact their relationship in any lasting way.
The last line of the stanza, “But you didn’t” is used here to express the speaker’s pleasure and amazement at the listener’s reaction. She did not expect to get off easily. In fact she uses the exaggeration, “I thought you’d kill me” to describe her expectations. This is something a reader can come to expect from the relationship. The listener is always better than the speaker expects him to be.
In the second stanza the speaker presents the reader, and her husband, with another personal memory. It is interesting to note that while these moments from the past are personal to this particular speaker, they are also broad enough to apply to any number of readers.
This time the Glass tells of an instance in which she forgot to tell her husband that the dance “was formal.” Meaning that he should’ve been wearing a suit or even a tuxedo. Working off the information the speaker provided, he came “in jeans.” No real harm was done by this faux pas, but it was likely very embarrassing. In the third line the speaker admits that she was afraid her husband would “hate” her after this incident, but he didn’t.
Each of these stanzas gives the reader a small insight into the life of the speaker and her partner. Their relationship is defined through what Glass saw as transformative low points that increased her love for her husband.
The third stanza is the longest so far with five lines. She asks her husband to “Remember” moments in their past in which she flirted with, “Other boys just to make [him] jealous, and / you were.”
Of the fairly innocuous moments she has presented so far, this seems to be the most serious. It is clear from the statement that she knew flirting with other people was wrong. In these instances, when her conscience caught up with her, she was afraid she’d be “drop[ped]” by her husband. But, as a reader should expect by now, she was not. Their love was strong enough to withstand everything so far.
The true purpose of the text is revealed in the last six lines. Rather than asking her husband to remember something from the past, the stanza begins with her wrapping up her memories. She acknowledges that he had to put up with her and her mistakes. There was a lot he probably didn’t want to do in order to “keep” her “happy.”
This side of the relationship is contrasted in the next three lines with the speaker saying that there were, and are, a lot of things she wanted to tell him. This use of the past tense foreshadows the revelation that is coming in the last line. She never got a chance to tell her husband these “things” as he didn’t “return from / Vietnam…”
After realizing that this piece was written in the wake of the poet’s husband’s death, the previous stanzas take on a new meaning. Their sentimental tone is replaced by one of mourning and resignation. She knows that now there is no way for her to share everything she wanted to.