‘It Couldn’t Be Done’ by Edgar Albert Guest is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. Guest structured each of these octaves with a consistent rhyme scheme. The lines follow the pattern of ababcdcd, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza. There are moments in which rhymes are repeated though. The most prominent of these is with the end sound “-it.” The end sound appears twice in the first stanza, four times in the second, and twice in the third. The sound is a unifying element that helps to connect each octave. The same can said for “one” which appears twice in the first stanza and twice in the third.
Summary of It Couldn’t Be Done
The first two stanzas tell of a situation in which an unnamed “Somebody” tries to convince a man that “something” cannot be done. This “thing” is never described as it is meant to represent any task one has to overcome. The man in the poem is not deterred by the naysayer and does the thing immediately and quickly. He is confident and proud of his own abilities, a fact which enables his success.
The poem concludes with the speaker making clear that anytime someone doubts “you,” that is a perfect opportunity to prove them wrong. One should “buckle in” and do the thing they say “you” cannot.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of It Couldn’t Be Done
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!
In the first stanza of the piece the speaker begins by utilizing the phrase that would become the title of the poem, “it couldn’t be done. “ The phrase appears as a reference to a previous statement the reader does not have access to. The speaker is describing how “Somebody” told the male main character of this narrative that something “couldn’t be done.” As a reply to that statement the man “chuckle[s],” dismissing it. He is not willing to accept that this task cannot be completed unless he tries it himself and fails.
From these lines, it is clear that Guest was hoping a reader would feel admiration for the main and his stubborn, dedicated nature. Even without knowledge of what the thing is, it is admirable to attempt something that has never been completed before.
In the fifth line of the stanza, the speaker describes how the man is “buckl[ing]” down to the task at hand. He doesn’t appear to be too intimidated by what he is about to attempt. There is a “trace of a grin / On his face” that hid any worry that might also be present. He also “started to sing” when he went to “tackle…the thing.” The first stanza ends with the revelation that the man accomplished the thing that could not be done.
Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
The second stanza follows the same pattern as the first. It begins with the speaker relaying the same scenario in different terms, that there is “Somebody” who is passing judgment on the situation before the determined main character can attempt the feat. The unnamed “Somebody” says that the man will “never do that” because “no one” has ever done it.
Just as with the first stanza, the second describes to the man readying himself to do “it.” He “took off his coat” and then “took off his hat” and did “it.” Whatever “it” might be, it was done quickly. The narrator was surprised by how fast it happened.
The final lines speak to the man’s confidence and how it was that confidence that enabled him to “do it.” Again, the man is clearly pleased with himself. He lifts his “chin” with pride and smiles at the onlooker’s surprised faces. The speaker emphasizes the upbeat attitude the man took and the song he broke into to encourage himself onward.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.
In the final lines, as is customary with Guest’s poetry, the speaker summarizes the main points of the previous verses. Although by this point the main themes have been made very clear, Guest reiterates them again. His speaker tells the reader that throughout life there are always going to be those who tell you something “cannot be done.” They will “prophesy” or predict, your “failure” at any number of things you care about. The poet uses anaphora in his repetition of the words “There are thousands” for the third time in the third stanza. There is a great emphasis placed on the number of people who want to see “you” fail.
When this happens, the speaker tells the reader that they should “buckle in with a bit of a grin,” just as the man in the first two stanzas did, and “go to it.” It does not matter what “it” is, anything can be accomplished by someone dedicated enough.