In ‘The Prodigal’ Bishop describes a man whose life is meant to evoke both pity and admiration from the reader. This mood is furthered through the poet’s own reflective and considerate tone as she describes the foul life he’s living juxtaposed with the hope the future presents. The poem speaks on themes of hope, alcoholism, addiction, and salvation.
Critics have often compared the story of the prodigal son, consumed by alcohol to the problems with alcoholism in the poet’s own life. She was known to have suffered from addiction during most of her life and even had an experience similar to the one laid out in this poem.
The story follows the life of the Biblical “prodigal son,” focusing on the period in which he lived in a barn with pigs. The man in this poem has a miserable existence that is punctuated by moments of beauty and hope for the future. He’s able to see past the terrible stench of his present and enjoy the sight of the light warming a puddle. By the end of the poem, due in part to the absence of light, he realizes that he needs to go home.
You can read the full poem here.
‘The Prodigal’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a two stanza poem that’s separated into sets of fourteen lines. These lines follow a complicated rhyme scheme of ABACDBCEDFEGGF, changing end sounds in the second stanza. The lines are all around the same length, around 9-11 syllables per line, and might be considered individually as sonnets.
Bishop also makes use of half-rhyme within the poem. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “almost” and “more,” or the “s” sound in lines eleven and twelve of the second stanza with the words “uncertain,” “staggering,” “shuddering,” and “insights”.
Bishop uses several poetic techniques in ‘The Prodigal’. These include alliteration, caesura, juxtaposition, and enjambment. Alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example “fainted forked” in line five of the second stanza and “make” and “mind” in the last line of the poem.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed with an important turn or transition in the text. For example, the third line of the first stanza: “for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty”. it is here a reader is introduced to the facts of this man’s life. He’s living in a pigsty that’s rotten with mud and dung.
Juxtaposition and Enjambment
Juxtaposition is one of the most important techniques in ‘The Prodigal’. This is when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to emphasize a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. In the case of this poem, the dark, dank, disgusting interior of the barn is contrasted with the light that comes in from the sun and later the lantern. There are two different presumed states of mind at work here. The prodigal’s darker mental moments that sent him to this place and to alcohol, and then the hopeful, warm, and religious one that is going to lead him back home.
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 example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and thirteen and fourteen of the second.
Analysis of The Prodigal
The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
even to the sow that always ate her young–
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
In the first lines of ‘The Prodigal,’ the speaker begins by describing the setting. Around the “prodigal,” there is an “enormous odor”. It’s described not by a recognizable smell, but a colour– “brown”. This brings up any number of terrible associations. These are only expanded as his surroundings are made more clear.
The smell is everywhere about and within this man. It’s so poignant that it’s personified by the poet. Bishop gives it human attributes. It is “breathing” and has “thick hair”. This makes a little more sense in next lines of text as it becomes clear that this person is inside a barn. He’s surrounded by pigs that mill about below him. Despite what it likely the source of this smell, the barn he’s in is not improved by this revelation. The “floor” is rotten” and there’s “dung” plastered halfway up the wall of the sty, or pigpen. This is truly a terrible place to reside and a reader is likely wondering why anyone would choose to sleep there.
In what is a strange and otherworldly moment the man in the poem stares down at the pigs and their eyes follow him. They appear cheerful to him, despite his surroundings and he even leans down to “scratch” the head of one of the sows. What could be a tender moment in an otherwise horrifying scene is degraded by the bishop’s statement that this particular pig always eats her young. The narrator appears to be passing judgment on the man at this moment by using the word “sickeningly” to describe his choice to pet her. But, at the same time, there is something compassionate about this gesture. The pigs are the only companions the man has and he does appear to appreciate them.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.
The next lines inform the reader about why the prodigal has found himself here. They also provide more information about his state of mind. The speaker says that on some mornings when he wakes up the terrible stench of the pigsty and the reality of his miserable life, fades into the background. Often, all he can see is the “sunrise” that paints the setting in a more attractive light. This speaks to how far this man has drifted from reality, but he’s not lost entirely. He knows that how he’s living is wrong as is symbolized by the hidden glass behind the panel in the wall.
Everything feels warm in these moments, but it is only due to his drinking. It is after “drinking bouts” that his scenery improves. He thinks briefly that he “might endure / his exile yet another year or more”. Perhaps, he considers, life isn’t so bad. These lines represent, again, his disconnection from reality and the nature of addiction and self-justification. Despite his state, and the fact that he will likely exist this way for a while longer, there is something hopeful in the mood and admiring in Bishop’s tone in these lines. For someone to live this way but still see good in the world is noteworthy. This is especially impactful if a reader considers the poet’s experiences with alcohol and addiction.
But evenings the first star came to warn.
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
In the second stanza of ‘The Prodigal,’ the speaker shifts the poem forward in time. The morning that was so peaceful fades into night. In these lines, it feels as though there really is some hope that this person is going to transform their life and perhaps, as the biblical story says, go back home.
There is a single star in the first line of this stanza. It came to “warn” the speaker of the error in his ways and persuade him to give up drinking. But, unlike the wise men in the story of the birth of Christ, this man does not follow the stars’ advice. At least not now. At this point, he’s willing to suffer a little longer in order to continue drinking. His transition back into the real world is not an easy one, it’s going to, as the last lines explain, take a long time. By this point, it was likely Bishop’s hope that the reader has come to empathize, or at least sympathize with this man’s plight and the difficult situation he has to work his way out of.
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
As the poem continues on there is another religious reference, this time to the “ark”. The farmer he works for, as he does in the Biblical story, comes and closes up the barn. The prodigal is still stuck in this world while the farmer returns to a real home. But, in his alcohol-dependent state, this doesn’t bother him. The whole barn feels, at that moment, like a kind of ark. He’s safe inside with creatures that seem to understand him and he can indulge in his vice. But, a reader can’t forget that these animal companions won’t be enough for the man forever. They are only “pigs” and eventually, he’s going to need someone else to communicate with.
All these musings are set to the side though as in this moment the poet takes note of the way the pigs sleep, at peace, in the barn. They are comfortable there with their “little feet” stuck out and their snoring. The hope in these lines starts to fade slightly with the departure of the farmer.
The lantern–like the sun, going away–
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.
The light is drifting away, “like the sun,” and the speaker is again confronted with the reality of his situation. In an interesting juxtaposition, the light once a sign that once induced the man to stay in the barn for longer is now one that tells him it’s time to make a change. The lantern fades into the distance and seems to set the man on a different path.
Bishop describes his unsteady movements through space. He wobbles back and forth as he walks along a plank. This is a sign of his inebriated state but also of his life as a whole. This is expanded into the eleventh line where the poet says he had “shuddering insights” that were “beyond his control”. Some power, divine or otherwise, touched his heart. He was finally convinced after “a long time” to “go home”. He found salvation, one of the major themes of this poem.
Here, the reader gets the beginning of the second half of the story of the prodigal son from the Bible. If Bishop’s story follows the same path then the man will be greeted kindly at home.