Two Deaths by Elizabeth Jennings

In this poem, ‘Two DeathsJennings communicates the profound effect that two separate events had on her. In the same two days, she experienced death in two different ways. Although to most people, these experiences might seem small and insignificant, to the reader, they had a profound effect. She was affected by the sight of two different deaths. The first she saw only in a film. Many people have seen deaths in films so often as to be barely moved by the sight of it on a screen. Not so with this speaker. Rather, she was immensely changed. The death she saw on film was the death of a boy. The speaker mentions in a calm, matter of fact tone of voice, but the effect it had on her becomes more and more evident as the poem progresses. Just a day after having watched the film, the speaker encounters the death of a cat. These two experiences lead her to think about death and violence in an entirely different way than she ever had before.

Two Deaths by Elizabeth Jennings

 

Two Deaths Analysis

Stanza One

It was only a film,
Perhaps I shall say later
(…)
And a white unsaddled horse, the only calm
Living creature. Will only such pictures remain?

In this stanza, the speaker begins by revealing to the audience that ‘Two Deaths’ is about something that happened in a movie. She says, “It was only a film” and she wonders if the effect it had on her would fade because it was only something she had seen in a movie. It is clear that the movie moved her since she questioned whether or not she would one day say, “It was only a film”. She wondered if she would forget the story and be left with only the vivid images she had seen. Her descriptions of “the blazing dawn” and “the European ravaged plain” suggest that the film she had seen had been about war. She distinctly remembers the chaos that the actors portrayed, as “a white unsaddled horse” was “the only calm living creature”.

 

Stanza Two

Or shall I see
The shot boy, running running
(…)
Yet brave still, trying to stop himself from falling
And screaming- his white girl waiting just out of calling?

In the second stanza of ‘Two Deaths’, the speaker continues to question the effect that the movie had on her. She asks herself a series of questions, wondering whether she would forever have flashbacks of “the shot boy” and he was “running” and “clutching the white sheet on the washing line”. She recalls the look in the child’s eyes as he realizes he has been shot. He looks “at his own blood like a child who never saw blood before”. The young boy is clearly in shock at what has just happened to him, and the speaker recalls that the look in his eyes suggests that he “feels defiled” as he was “dying without dignity”. This image stuck with the speaker, and she knows not whether it will ever leave her. She has already considered the possibility that she will eventually be able to say to herself, “it was only a film.” Now ponders the possibility that the images from the film will stay in her mind forever. She wonders if she will ever be able to forget the way the boy tried to be brave, and tried “to stop himself from falling and screaming”. Even in death, this child wanted to appear brave before a girl he had claimed as his own. Though she would have heard him had he called out for help, he does not. He wants to appear brave, even though he is a child faced with an untimely death.

 

Stanza Three

I am ashamed not to have seen anyone dead
Anyone I know, I mean;
(…)
Of the blazing Polish light, of the cat’s eye:
I am ashamed I have never seen anyone die

In the final stanza of ‘Two Deaths’, the speaker reveals the reason this film moved her so deeply. She realized that even though it was only a film and actors, there were real people who experienced war in this way. She became aware that children had been forced to experience war, violence, and death. This makes her “ashamed not to have seen anyone dead”. She suddenly realizes how very pacific her own life has been when compared to the thousands of people who lived through war. She has never experienced the death of anyone she knew, and she suddenly feels that it is not fair to so many others that they should have to experience war and death, and yet she has never experienced the death of even one person she knew personally.

Then, the speaker continues to describe the one death she has experienced- the death of a cat. She finds it odd that she watched the movie which affected her so deeply only one day after having experienced death for the first time, be it only the death of a random cat. She describes this car as “broken” and “stretched on a path”. The little creature had clearly been hit by something and was left to die, though not quite dead yet. She describes the creature’s “gentle head” which was clearly mutilated as it had only “one eye staring”. That eye, the speaker though, seemed to be “mutely beseeching death”.

After the experience of seeing that cat, followed by the death she saw in the film, the speaker is unable to stop thinking about “violence and death”. She thinks of the “blazing Polish light” she saw in the movie. She thinks of “the cat’s eye”. She is unable to stop thinking about these images and the death that she has seen, and she becomes ashamed. This seems an odd reaction. However, she knows that she has lived a life free of violence and death, and that was a privilege many people would never have. She questions why she should be allowed such peace in her life when so many others have had to experience death and violence as a normal part of their everyday lives. She realizes that if the sight of death in a stray cat and in a film could have such a profound effect on her, then she must have no real understanding of what people experience when they see someone they love die. She wonders why so many should have to see death, and she should be able to escape the traumatic experiences so many people have to live through. In light of this realization, the speaker concludes that she is “ashamed” to “have never seen anyone die”.

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