‘Cold-Blooded Creatures” by Elinor Wylie is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Wylie has chosen to conform the lines of this piece to a simple yet consistent rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef. The sing-song like pattern of rhyme enhances the ease with which a reader moves through the text.
A reader should also take note of the moments of repetition and alliteration in the lines. The first and most prominent example of alliteration is in the first line with the combination of words, “egregious egoist.” The choice to pair up two words beginning with ‘e’ helps to emphasize the entire phrase itself. One is drawn in by the sound and is then willing to pay greater attention, and place greater importance, on what is being said. In this instance, considering the words are meant as an insult, they seem to spit from the speaker’s mouth with anger.
Additional examples of this technique, but used with a different tone, can be seen in the third stanza. Wylie uses the words “phosphorescent” and “plumbs” right after each other. Then goes on to use “Swim” and “staring.” In this case, the alliteration is helpful in placing emphasis a certain image of the creatures Wylie’s speaker is interested in.
By the time one gets to the end of the poem it has been made very clear that the title, ‘Cold-Blooded Creatures,’ does not refer to the animals, but to the men who cannot see them.
Summary of Cold-Blooded Creatures
The poem begins with the speaker stating that man is a self-centered, shockingly bad creature. He is incapable of acknowledging that there are other beings on the planet as “sentient” as he is. This “mental twist” extends to all other organisms.
The second stanza describes how man refuses to take the time to look closely at any of his fellow beings. The example the speaker uses is that of a toad with “speechless sorrow” in its eyes. Just because the toad is incapable of speaking, doesn’t mean it cannot feel. Man though, is unable to see the “load” all beings carry.
In the last lines of the poem, the speaker uses two more examples to summarize her opinion of men. They do not care to ask “questions” of the snake. “Man” will not use any of his time to try to understand the lives of fish in the deepest parts of the ocean. They swim in complete blackness, a depressing feature of their lives the speaker calls “nightmare doom.”
Analysis of Cold-Blooded Creatures
Man, the egregious egoist
(In mystery the twig is bent)
Imagines, by some mental twist,
That he alone is sentient
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker does not hold back her opinion. She immediately calls out “Man” for the darker, more selfish impulses of his nature. The speaker refers to mankind as being composed of “egregious,” or shockingly bad, self-centred “egotists.” As mentioned above, Wylie has chosen to utilize alliteration throughout her text. This is the most prominent and striking example of that technique being used successfully. Her words have a greater impact due to the repetitive nature of the ‘e’ sound.
She goes on to speak on how man is under an incorrect impression about his importance. He would profess himself to be the only type of being on the planet that matters. He “Imagines” by some “twist[ing]” and distorting of his mind, that he “alone is sentient.” “Sentient” refers to a creature’s ability to perceive or feel things.
It is important to note at this point that the speaker has only mentioned “Man” as the offending creature. “Man” could be used by Wylie to refer to all of humankind. It is equally likely though that she is only referring to men, and not women. If the latter is the case, then she sees men as only accounting for their own abilities as being real. They do not see women or non-human animals as having independence worth acknowledging. This is quite a dark view of one half of humankind that will be pushed farther in the next eight lines.
Of the intolerable load
That on all living creatures lies,
Nor stoops to pity in the toad
The speechless sorrow of his eyes.
In the second quatrain, the speaker goes on to describe the true selfishness she sees as being inherent within man. She begins by reminding a reader of the “intolerable load,” or pressure of life, that “lies” on all “living creatures.” This statement shows that she is very much not of the same mind as the men she is speaking about. She understands that all creatures have needs to attend to. No matter how insignificant they might seem initially, have troubles they have to deal with.
The second half of the stanza returns to the men who are incapable of “stoop[ing]” down and taking a closer look at the creatures they share the world with. She refers specifically to the “toad.” Man has no “pity” for this creature as he refuses to acknowledge the “sorrow of his eyes.”
He asks no questions of the snake,
Nor plumbs the phosphorescent gloom
Where lidless fishes, broad awake,
Swim staring at a nightmare doom.
In the last four lines of this piece, the speaker takes the time to emphasize her previous point with additional examples. She returns to the men and their inability to care for anything they deem lesser than themselves. Man will not think to “ask…questions of the snake.” This line leads into the next where man is incapable of “plumb[ing]” or searching, the “phosphorescent gloom” of the deepest parts of the ocean. If he were to take the time to look, he might see the “lidless fishes” whose lives are spent “staring at a nightmare doom.”
These final lines darken the tone of the poem further. They also reveal the speaker as having a depressing opinion about the lives of other creatures. She professes to see them as individual beings and from her analysis draws only “nightmare doom.” The speaker does make clear that the troubles plaguing non-human animals are just as important as the ones man’s.