In ‘Life’s Scars’ Wilcox explores themes of relationships, pain, and love. The poem delves into the intricacies of relationships and the misbehaviors that often lead to the degradation of the most important loves in our lives. The tone is consistently direct, but at times it becomes more mournful, along with the mood, as the speaker reflects on the past.
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Summary of Life’s Scars
The poem explains to the reader, from the speaker’s own experience, that the only real pain one goes through in life comes from those we love. The rest is forgotten, written off as small annoyances, and passes before it does any damage. She also spends time chastising herself, the reader, and all others, for the times in which we cared more for the opinions of strangers than maintaining the love of our family members and closest companions.
Structure of Life’s Scars
‘Life’s Scars’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a four stanza poem that’s separated into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD, and so on, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza.
The meter is also very consistent, following a similar “every other line” pattern. The odd-numbered lines, starting with line one (then three, five, seven, etc.) conforms to iambic tetrameter. This means that there are four sets of two syllables per line. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. While the even-numbered lines are shorter, with only three sets of two beats per line, known as trimeter.
Poetic Techniques in Life’s Scars
Wilcox makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Life’s Scars’. These include alliteration, enjambment, anaphora, and repetition. The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. It’s seen most clearly in this piece through the refrain. This is a phrase that’s repeated in its entirety multiple times. In this case, “Are those we love the best” appears at the end of stanza one, three, and four, with only a slight variation.
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. There are a few examples in this poem, for instance, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines seven and eight of the second.
Wilcox also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “We,” which starts two lines in the third stanza, and “The” which is used at the beginning of lines several times in stanzas two through four.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “garb” and “grace” in the first line of the third stanza and “frowning face” in the third line of that same stanza.
Analysis of Life’s Scars
They say the world is round, and yet
I often think it square,
So many little hurts we get
From corners here and there.
But one great truth in life I’ve found,
While journeying to the West-
The only folks who really wound
Are those we love the best.
In the first stanza of ‘Life’s Scars,’ the speaker compares the ways in which one becomes emotionally injured by others to “square” edges. These edges can be found on the corners of a world that are supposed to be “round”. The corners pop up everywhere and continually cause “little hurts”.
From her experience in the world, she’s come upon one important truth, that the only real “hurts” one receives in life comes from those “we love the best”. Everything else pales in comparison.
The man you thoroughly despise
Can rouse your wrath, ’tis true;
Annoyance in your heart will rise
At things mere strangers do;
But those are only passing ills;
This rule all lives will prove;
The rankling wound which aches and thrills
Is dealt by hands we love.
The second stanza of ‘Life’s Scars’ provides the reader with what should be relatable examples. Through these, the speaker tries to prove her point about temporary and lasting pain. She mentions irritating strangers and aggravating moments that are painful, but then pass. These are very different than the “rankling,” or persistently painful, “wound which aches and thrills”. It is only this injury that comes from the “hands we love”.
By not going into detail about what actions cause these wounds, only their source, Wilcox allows the reader or listener to cast their own experience over her words. She can, therefore, speak to a very wide audience.
The choicest garb, the sweetest grace,
Are oft to strangers shown;
The careless mien, the frowning face,
Are given to our own.
We flatter those we scarcely know,
We please the fleeting guest,
And deal full many a thoughtless blow
To those who love us best.
In the third stanza of ‘Life’s Scars’ the speaker includes herself, and the reader, while speaking about dealing pain out to those one loves. Often, she states, we treat strangers more kindly than we do those we love. This is depicted through the “frowning face” and the “sweetest grace”. We, she adds, “flatter” people that we hardly know while thoughtlessly harming those we love, and who “love us best”.
Love does not grow on every tree,
Nor true hearts yearly bloom.
Alas for those who only see
This cut across a tomb!
But, soon or late, the fact grows plain
To all through sorrow’s test:
The only folks who give us pain
Are those we love the best.
In the final stanza of ‘Life’s Scars,’ the speaker delves into the rarity of true, lasting love. It does not “grow on every tree,” nor as a flower, does it “yearly bloom”. If one is not careful the love we have will be destroyed or lost while we mistreat it.
It might take us a long time, or a brief period of contemplation, to realize that “the only folks who give us pain / Are those we love the best”. The rest of the hurts one receives in life are fleeting.