‘Marshlands’ by Emily Pauline Johnson is a fourteen-line poem that is divided into seven couplets. It is possible to consider this piece as a sonnet due to its rhyme and rhythm schemes and the number of lines. The couplets rhyme perfectly, conforming the poem to a pattern of aa bb cc dd ee ff gg. And the metrical pattern is identical to iambic pentameter. This means that each line is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. This pattern, along with the rhyme scheme, gives the poem a steady, lulling rhythm which helps to emphasize the peaceful and romanticized picture of the marshlands.
The speaker begins this piece with an initial description of the main subject, the marshlands. That being said, the appropriate label for the land is less important than the general feelings that are brought across by it. The text of this piece is primarily descriptive, but those same descriptions are emotionally tinged. Johnson’s word choices are poignant and textured. One is able to take more than just surface-level information from the lines. There is a general feeling of mystery around the land. It is dark and in some places dank, but it’s also filled with life.
Summary of Marshlands
The poem begins with the speaker stating that the sky ver the land is “thin” and “wet.” It is very likely that a storm could come and drench the land at any time. This is a constant possibility in the marshes. Amongst all of the reeds, moss, and darkened corners of the land, there are cranes, geese, and lizards. These creatures represent the wider array of animals and organic life that lives in an area that is generally distasteful to many onlookers.
Johnson’s speaker tracks the comings and goings of these animals and the function the plants play as night approaches. It brings with it a heavy silence that falls over the land, and will remain, until the next day.
Analysis of Marshlands
A thin wet sky, that yellows at the rim,
And meets with sun-lost lip the marsh’s brim.
The pools low lying, dank with moss and mould,
Glint through their mildews like large cups of gold.
The first line describes the sky that looks down overtop of the marshes. Its is “thin” and “wet,” as if at any moment it could break open and storm. The edges of the blue, or more likely grey, are tinged with “yellow.” The color runs around the “rim” and ends where the sun has dipped down below the “brim.” A reader is now aware that the sun has almost vanished from the sky and it appears as if a storm is about to drench the land.
In the second line, the marsh is described as having “lip” and “brim.” The ecosystem within it is contained. It remains inside this enclosed area while the rest of the world operates differently.
The next couplet describes the “pools” that make up most of the floor of the marsh. They are low in the ground and filled with “moss and mould.” These areas are not pleasant, at least to those who do not naturally reside within the area. While they might be “dank” they are also clearly fertile. Plants grow heartily within and around the waters. The waters themselves still “Glint” through the layer of moss.
Among the wild rice in the still lagoon,
In monotone the lizard shrills his tune.
The wild goose, homing, seeks a sheltering,
Where rushes grow, and oozing lichens cling.
In the next couplet, the speaker moves on to describe the “wild rice” that is growing on the land. Here, the speaker refers to the marsh as containing a “still lagoon.” The water is stagnant, but as previously stated, that does not mean there isn’t life. It was important for Johnson to imbue this piece with larger details to create the scene, but also the smaller ones, such as the presence of a “lizard” to complete the environment. These small pieces of information help a reader to fully visualize what this place is like. To exclude them in favor of mapping out larger swaths of land, would be doing an injustice to the reality of the marshlands.
The lizard is said to be “shrill” in “his tune.” The animal is faintly personified as its small cries are describes as being musical in nature. This elevates it to a level above what one would normally regard a lizard on.
Next, the speaker describes another animal, the “wild goose.” It is “homing.” The creature is single-minded in its quest to “seek…shelter.” It knows hat somewhere in amongst the “rushes,” or long grass, and the “oozing lichens” there is somewhere it can rest. From these first few lines, one should have a clear picture of how the land is important to both plants and non-human animals. It plays host to a great variety of species which are only expanded upon in the final six lines.
Late cranes with heavy wing, and lazy flight,
Sail up the silence with the nearing night.
And like a spirit, swathed in some soft veil,
Steals twilight and its shadows o’er the swale.
Hushed lie the sedges, and the vapours creep,
Thick, grey and humid, while the marshes sleep.
Towards the end of the poem, the night is coming more strongly. The narrative has progressed through the setting of the sun, to the “nearing night.” It is under the “silence” of the sky that the “Late cranes” are flying lazily. They are sailing “up” from the marshlands to fly in the peace of the evening. There is no rush evident in their actions. They move without pretense or any particular pressing need.
In the next couplet, the speaker describes how the night is taking over the land. It is not malevolent or foreboding in any way. It is described as being “like a spirit” that moves slowly. The darkness comes over the land and takes away the remanding bits of “twilight.” Now, there are “shadows o’er the swale,” or the low valleys in the mostly flat marshes.
The final couplet speaks on the “hush” that takes over the “sedges” ( a plant that grows in wetlands). It, along with all the other creatures and organic elements of the marsh are silent. The air is “thick, grey and humid,” pressing down on the “marshes” as they “sleep.” When morning comes, the great variety of life will become active once more.