‘Admonition’ by Elizabeth Jennings is a four stanza sapphic poem which is separated into four sets of four lines, or quatrains. A poem is “sapphic” in nature when it is constructed with quatrains, as was done by the ancient poet Sappho, the first to utilize this form on a regular basis.
The first two stanzas of the poem follow a rhyme scheme of abca deef. While the second two conform to a pattern of, abcd effe. This alternating rhyme scheme is meant to show the chaos and unpredictability of the subject matter. It is also used to stimulate a reader and keep one from being able to expect what is coming next.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that one needs to “Watch carefully” as there are many groups that seek to control “you.” These people, who are never named, will do whatever they can to get influence over the lives of others. In an effort to avoid this outcome, one should never “Sign” something or commit to a “Slogan.” This will help avoid losing control over life.
Additionally, one should care for their own “responsibilities,” even if they are distressing. There are always going to be those who wish to take control and they should be passed over and ignored. No one’s life is going to be perfect, and it shouldn’t be. The speaker concludes by giving the imperfection of a star as an example.
Analysis of Admonition
The speaker begins this piece by asking that her readers, and any who may be listening to her words, “Watch carefully.” This is part of the “admonition” to which the title refers. It will be expanded, and complicated, as the poem progresses. This short phrase is quiet vague. It does not refer to a single subject or reason why one should be careful. A reader’s interest is meant to be piqued by the words, inspiring one to read on and understand the poet’s intent.
The next lines, while seeming to provide more detail, are quite confusing in their composition.
This phrase, which is separated between the first and second line, does not shed anymore light on what the poem is trying to say at this point. A reader will wonder, what are “These” and what are the “Surprising statements?” It was the poet’s intent that these lines be ambiguous. She does not want to tie down her speaker’s words to one particular “they.” Instead, one should read this poem as a warning against trusting those who promise something. This could mean people one meets, companies, the government, or any organization which declares itself to have the answer.
They might offer “Surprising statements” or novel solutions, but one should be warned as they also do not allow for “your proper doubt.” Any word said against them, or thought they deem out-of-order, is not allowed. To the poet’s speaker, this is a red flag. One should be allowed to properly doubt anything one wants to.
In the last line of this section the speaker, as if to prove she was right about “their” malicious natures, states that they will,
..watch you while you suffer.
“They” will turn their back on those who are dependent on them and refuse to raise a hand to help one who is truly in need.
In the second quatrain, the speaker does not illuminate the idea of “they” to any greater extend, but she does give an example of something that “you” should not do.
One should, “Sign nothing.” Therefore one will not be committed to or become trapped in anything “they” might have come up with. The speaker asks that you allow
Slogans [to] stand without your name.
With this addition to the text it becomes more likely, although not clearly so, that the “they” is an organization of some kind that wants to promote a particular agenda. “You” will be better off not connecting yourself with a group of this kind because one never knows what will come of it.
The second half of the stanza speaks of how, even though you did not sign your name, “they” will “claim” your “indifference” as that of their own making. This statement is another which can be interpreted in multiple ways. One could understand it as saying that no matter what “you” do, these companies/organizations/bodies of control, will claim you. They will profess ownership over your decisions.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker continues in the same way as she has been previously. Just as one should not commit to anything in the second stanza, the speaker reinforces this idea by saying that
Signing a paper puts off
The ambiguous “they” know how easy it is to take control of someone in need. When one “signs” a paper, whatever that paper might be, a part of their life is now in the hands of another. The speaker is warning, or admonishing, against this course of action. She believes that one’s responsibilities should be their own.
The second two lines ask that the reader…
Trust rather your own distress
The speaker sees this as being a sign that one is in control of one’s own life. If you can feel “distress,” know its source, and understand why life is the way it is, that’s a good thing. That means that “you” have not given into the demands of the undefined “they.”
The speaker does give one example of an issue that is better controlled by “you” than “they,” and that is love. One should not designate another as the controller of who or what they love. It is something which is deeply personally, and even when it is distressing, should be relished.
By the final stanza, although the speaker has not made clear who “they” are, a reader should have a better idea of who they could be. The poet’s narrator speaks about “judges” and how they are “Always behind you.” This is an ominous statement and a crucial part of her “admonition.” It means that one should always look out for those who seek to gain control over their lives. They are “judges” in that they tell you about who you should be and what you should do, and they seem to have as much power as a judge would in a court.
In the next line, the speaker describes how the “judges”…
Will have something trite to say.
No matter who you are, what you do, or how you live, there will always be those who seek to influence you.
In the last two lines the speaker asks that “you” tell “them” that “you want delay.” One should not jump into signing things or accepting promises from those who are untrustworthy “judges.” It is not a bad thing to have an imperfect life. The speaker proves this point by saying,
No star’s smooth at its edges.