Throughout ‘The Spanish Needle,’ readers will encounter numerous exciting and imaginative examples of imagery. They should easily inspire one to hear, feeling, and imagine the various sights and sounds the speaker did. It’s also quite easy to feel the speaker’s nostalgia for these past years.
The Spanish Needle Claude McKay Lovely dainty Spanish needle With your yellow flower and white, Dew bedecked and softly sleeping, Do you think of me to-night? Shadowed by the spreading mango, Nodding o'er the rippling stream, Tell me, dear plant of my childhood, Do you of the exile dream? Do you see me by the brook's side Catching crayfish 'neath the stone, As you did the day you whispered: Leave the harmless dears alone? Do you see me in the meadow Coming from the woodland spring With a bamboo on my shoulder And a pail slung from a string? Do you see me all expectant Lying in an orange grove, While the swee-swees sing above me, Waiting for my elf-eyed love? Lovely dainty Spanish needle, Source to me of sweet delight, In your far-off sunny southland Do you dream of me to-night?
Explore The Spanish Needle
‘The Spanish Needle’ by Claude McKay is a beautiful, nostalgic poem that looks back on a speaker’s childhood.
In the stanzas, the speaker asks the Spanish needle, a type of plant, if it remembers him during his youth. He has fond memories of spending time outside, near a river, carrying water, and spending time with his love. It’s clear he’s feeling nostalgic about his past and hoping that through the plant, a tiny bit of himself still exists in the past.
Structure and Form
‘The Spanish Needle’ by Claude McKay is a six-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, the traditional pattern associated with a ballad. The meter is close to consistent with this same pattern as well. The first and third lines of each stanza are written in iambic tetrameter. This means that they contain four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. The other lines contain seven total syllables, one more than the traditional pattern of iambic trimeter associated with ballads.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Apostrophe: when the speaker talks to something or someone that can’t hear or understand them, the poet is using an apostrophe. In this case, the speaker is talking to a plant.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, “Tell me, dear plant of my childhood, / Do you of the exile dream?”
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “Shadowed by the spreading mango, / Nodding o’er the rippling stream.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “softly sleeping” in line three and of the first stanza.
Lovely dainty Spanish needle
With your yellow flower and white,
Dew bedecked and softly sleeping,
Do you think of me to-night?
In the first lines of ‘The Spanish Needle,’ the speaker begins by addressing the Spanish needle, a type of weed. This plant is commonly found in subtropical and tropical areas and is usually viewed as a pest, something to be eradicated. The poet chose to make this weed the subject of his poem and explores why this is the case throughout the next lines.
He calls it “dainty” and describes its yellow and white colors. Like all flowers and plants, it is covered in “Dew” in the morning. He uses personification in the next lines, referring to how it gets covered in dew while it sleeps softly through the night. He also asks it, interestingly, if it thinks of him “to-night?” It’s clear in these lines that the poet’s speaker is using the flower as a symbol. For whom, it’s not yet clear.
Shadowed by the spreading mango,
Nodding o’er the rippling stream,
Tell me, dear plant of my childhood,
Do you of the exile dream?
In the next few lines, the speaker brings in some different images. He speaks of the shadow cast by the “mango” and the sound of the “rippling stream.” It’s clear that the plant is growing somewhere tropical, somewhere that mangos also grow. In the third line of this stanza, it becomes clearer what exactly the poet is trying to do with the poem. He’s speaking to a plant, one that was a part of his childhood. He can recall it when he was young. Now though, as the previous stanza noted, he is separated from it.
Do you see me by the brook’s side
Catching crayfish ‘neath the stone,
As you did the day you whispered:
Leave the harmless dears alone?
The third stanza ends in the same way as the first and second (and the rest of the stanzas), with a question. He asks if the plant can still see him as a youth, catching “crayfish ‘neath the stone.” More examples of personification follow as the speaker recalls the plant talking to him, teaching him a lesson in his youth. More likely, the poet is using the plant as a symbol for the broad lesson about right and wrong that nature taught him as a child.
Stanzas Four and Five
Do you see me in the meadow
Coming from the woodland spring
With a bamboo on my shoulder
And a pail slung from a string?
Do you see me all expectant
Lying in an orange grove,
While the swee-swees sing above me,
Waiting for my elf-eyed love?
In the fourth stanza, there is another question. Here, he asks if the plant remembers him walking with a “pail slung from a string” coming from the “woodland spring” carrying water. This is another image from the speaker’s youth and yet another signal that he’s looking back on his childhood feeling nostalgic.
The final four lines bring in another part of the speaker’s life, a lover. He wants to know if the flower remembers him lying in the orange grove waiting for his “elf-eyed love.” This is a wonderful example of imagery. It should inspire the reader to imagine the scene in all its detail.
Lovely dainty Spanish needle,
Source to me of sweet delight,
In your far-off sunny southland
Do you dream of me to-night?
In the final four lines, the speaker addresses the Spanish needle by name once more. He’s looking back on his past, one that’s connected to the “sunny southland” where he used to live. He hopes that some memory of his time there still exists.
The poet engages with themes of the past and nature in this poem. He intertwines both, speaking to a plant and imbuing it with the ability to remember his youth and perhaps memorialize a critical time in his life.
The tone is nostalgic and reflective. The speaker is looking back on a happy time in his life that he can’t reclaim. By asking the plant if it remembers him, he’s showing his desire to find a small part of himself in the past still.
The purpose is to celebrate a time in the speaker’s life and show how moving it was. It also emphasizes the beauty of nature in this place and how impactful it was.
The speaker is someone who is looking back, wistfully, on their past. They used to live somewhere around the Spanish needles but have since moved from there. They’ve aged since the events of the poem as well.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other poems by Claude McKay. For example:
- ‘After the Winter’- a thoughtful and beautiful poem. Its speaker looks towards the future and considers the ideal life he’ll live with his partner.
- ‘Harlem Shadows’ – memorably addresses the lives of Black sex workers in Harlem. The poet describes their experience while also acknowledging their strength.
- ‘I Know My Soul’ – a sonnet which discusses the importance of being honest with ourselves if we wish to find true peace.