Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss

‘Yertle the Turtle’ was published on April 12, 1950, by Random House. It contains three stories but the first, the title story, is best-known. Since then, the book has sold more than a million copies and has been included on the Publishers Weekly list of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

 

Summary of Yertle the Turtle

‘Yertle the Turtle’ by Dr. Seuss tells the story of King Yertle the turtle who decides to build himself a throne out of other turtles. 

The first stanzas of the poem describe the turtle kingdom and how at first everything was peaceful and happy. But, Yertle the king decides that he wants to increase his kingdom. This means making a bigger throne so that he might survey the lands around him. The power goes to his head and he adds more and more turtles to the stack until one turtle at the bottom burps and the whole endeavor comes crashing down. 

You can read the full poem here. 

 

Structure and Poetic Techniques in Yertle the Turtle

‘Yertle the Turtle’ by Dr. Seuss is a fifteen stanza short story/poem. It makes use of a consistent rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD, and so on, changing end sounds from couplet to couplet. Throughout, Seuss also uses the metrical pattern of anapaestic tetrameter. 

Seuss also uses several different poetic techniques. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and anthropomorphism. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “water” and “warm” in line four of the first stanza and “Plunk” and “pond” in stanza fourteen. 

Anthropomorphism is used to make inanimate objects, forces and animals act like real human beings, not just seem to be. This is been through the characteristically human approach to power that Yertle takes and his eventual defeat at his own hand. 

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. For instance, the transitions between lines one and two of stanza three and lines one and two of stanza five. 

 

Analysis of Yertle the Turtle 

Stanzas One—Five 

In the first stanzas of ‘Yertle the Turtle,’ the speaker begins the poem by setting the scene in a  magical, made-up location. It is “Sala-ma-sond,” a “far-away island”. It was there that an anthropomorphized turtle named Yertle was king. This is accepted as fact, allowing the reader, young or old, to suspend their disbelief throughout the pages of this book. Seuss often made use of techniques like personification and anthropomorphism in his books. The first stanza is made up of short sentences that often split the lines of verse in half, a technique is known as caesura. These provide the Reaser with specific details about the place and how everyone felt there. 

Unfortunately for the kingdom, Yertle eventually decided that the kingdom was too small and that he was going to raise his throne and increase his power. He uses the backs of nine turtles to increase his throne. This is a great example of how a children’s story can be used to teach a moral lesson. An older reader will see the lesson playing out clearly while for a child it will be more obscure but eventually sink in.

In the fourth stanza, there are several examples of anaphora and repetition seen through the use of “I’m the king of” at the beginning of multiple lines and sentences. He lists the things he feels that he’s the king of now excitedly. Throughout these stanzas, the rhyme scheme remains consistent, following a pattern of AABBCC. In the fifth stanza one turtle, Mack, dares to speak out. This provides Yertle with the opportunity to show off his power and use his controlling personality, something that young reader is meant to find problematic. 

 

Stanzas Six —Ten

The sixth stanza is only two lines long, it sums up the king’s beliefs quite clearly. In the following stanza, there are more examples of repetition in the structure of lines as well as in the words that begin them. In his anger the king declares that more turtles be brought to him and used to increase the size of his throne. As he gets higher and higher he decides that he’s king of more and more. He lists these things out just as he has in the past stanzas. This creates a feeling of continuity that unifies each section of the book/poem.

 

Stanzas Eleven—Fifteen 

In the next stanzas Mack, the rebellious outspoken turtle from before, speaks out again. He complains about his pain and that of his comrades. He knows their shells are soon to crack. But this only enrages Yertle who declares that nothing will be taller than he. Seuss uses words like “howled” to describes Yertle’s speak. These create clear and easy to imagine images, taping into multiple senses. 

Things finally change for the king when he sees the sun. He doesn’t realize what it is and decides that he’ll stack the turtles until he’s in heaven. The outrageous and humorous number he asks for his “’bout five thousand, six hundred and seven!”

The poem ends in quite an amusing and Seussian way with Mack burping. This disrupts the whole tower and the king falls off and into the pond. Seuss uses the onomatopoeic word “Plunk” to describe the sound that the king turtle made as he fell into the pond. Seuss uses juxtaposition to compare the king’s position on top of the pile of turtles to that which he exists in now. 

The poem concludes with a summary of what a reader should’ve learned throughout the poem, that all creatures should be free as the stacked turtles are now. 

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