The poem uses eight couplets to emphasize the dark nature of war and what violence really achieves. The reader has to interpret the speaker’s tone in a certain way. It quickly becomes clear that there’s no way they could truly believe the statements they’re putting forward in ‘The Measures Taken.’
Explore The Measures Taken
‘The Measures Taken’ by Erich Fried is a powerful poem inspired by the poet’s experiences during World War II and the Holocaust.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by suggesting that removing the “ugly,” “lazy,” and “foolish” is going to make the world a more beautiful, industrious, and intelligent place. The same pattern continues throughout the following lines, asking the reader to consider what the purpose of death, especially of a specific group, could possible achieve.
You can read the full poem here.
The lazy are slaughtered
The foolish are slaughtered
the world grows wise
In the first lines of ‘The Measures Taken,’ the speaker begins by noting that as the “lazy are slaughtered / the world grows industrious.” This is a harsh opening line that notes a certain viewpoint about life. Doing away with weakness (or ugliness, as the second line says) is a way of changing the world (sarcastically) for the better. Knowing a bit about this poem’s background helps make sense of the lines. The poet was an Austrian Jew who fled Austria during the Second World War. His father was beaten to death, and his first-hand experiences are reflected in the lines. He continually refers to those who are “less desirable” in some way, just as the Jews of Austria and the rest of Germany were treated.
Readers might also interpret these lines more broadly as a way of reflecting the nature of war. Destruction leads to more destruction, not, in the end, to a better world. One does not necessarily lead to the next, despite the speaker’s repetitive suggestion that this is the case.
The sick are slaughtered
The old are slaughtered
the world grows young
As the poem progresses, he refers to several other outcomes. The world grows “healthy,” “merry,” and “young” as the “sick,” “sad,” and “old” are slaughtered. The repetition of the word “slaughtered” is a constant reminder of the violence of death and how just because someone lives in a different way, it doesn’t mean that they deserve death. It’s not worth making the world “young” (even if this were possible) to slaughter the old. Killing the “sick” does not mean the world is going to be “healthy,” if anything, it’s going to become more unhealthy.
The enemies are slaughtered
the world grows good
The repetition of the word “slaughtered” continues into the next lines. The speaker addresses enemies and friends as well as the wicked and the good. It’s like that he was alluding to the fact that as one seeks out the positive side of each equation, the negative only becomes more pronounced.
Structure and Form
‘The Measures Taken’ by Erich Fried is a sixteen-line poem that is divided into couplets. These couplets follow an unusual rhyme scheme in that the first line of each ends with the same word, creating numerous exact rhymes. The second line of each couplet is different, ranging from “industrious” to “beautiful” and “merry.” Readers will also likely immediately note the use of repetition at the beginning of lines as well. The lines all start with either “The” or “the world grows.”
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines four and five.
- Imagery: the use of particularly interesting descriptions. For example, The ugly are slaughtered / the world grows beautiful.”
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “sick” and “slaughtered” in line seven.
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the scope of the poem. Often, it is referred to but not fully described by the author. It may require the reader to do additional research to figure out what they’re talking about. In this case, the lines allude to the horrors of war, specifically World War II and the Holocaust.
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same phrase or word at the beginning of lines. For example, “The world grows” which starts the second line of every couplet.
The tone in this poem is sarcastic and dark. The speaker is describing the atrocities of war through allusions. There are few details in this poem. Instead, the speaker relies on the reader’s prior knowledge of the purposelessness of “slaughter.”
The purpose is to emphasize the nature of war and how even if one is trying to make the world a better place, their methods may be misplaced. One’s concept of what’s “good” and “bad” comes into question.
The speaker is generally considered to be the poet. They are taking a specific sarcastic tone towards war and death, playing off their own experiences during World War II.
The themes at work in this poem include war, death, and loss. The purpose of life and the nature of good and evil might also be considered. Readers may find themselves struggling with the speaker’s depiction of war and their use of language.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Measures Taken’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Never Shall I Forget’ by Elie Wiesel – a harrowing passage recounting the first night he spent at Birkenau from Wiesel’s famous memoir Night.
- ‘The Survivor’ by Primo Levi – a powerful and heart-wrenching poem that depicts the poet’s guilt after surviving the Holocaust.
- ‘The Butterfly’ by Pavel Friedmann – a beautiful and haunting poem that uses the image of a butterfly to symbolize the loss of freedom.