‘Ultimately’ is one of Hemingway’s best. Although he’s far better known as a journalist, novelist, and short-story writer, he also wrote poetry. This piece is very short and to the point. It is characteristic of Hemingway’s direct prose that gets to the point and allows the reader to enjoy it.
Summary of Ultimately
In the four lines of the poem, the speaker describes a man who at first is unable, to tell the truth, and then can’t stop himself from doing so. It flows out of him like spit, dribbling down his chin. Readers will likely leave the poem wondering if this explosion of truth is a good thing or a bad and what it was at first that kept the man from being able to form the spit to say what he had to say.
Themes in Ultimately
Hemingway engages primarily with the theme of truth in ‘Ultimately.’ It can be seen clearly throughout the four lines of the poem, although how readers interpret that truth and the effects it has on the male main character is up for interpretation. The poet personifies the truth as spit in the man’s mouth, hard to form at first, but once it gets going, impossible to stop. The final image of the man’s mouth overflowing with spit is hard to forget; it’s also quite evocative.
Structure and Form
‘Ultimately’ by Ernest Hemingway is a four-line poem that is contained within one short stanza of text. The lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABCC, with the first two endings coming close to being half-rhymes, or words that almost rhyme but not quite. The fact that Hemingway chose not to use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in this poem (meaning it was written in free verse) is not surprising. His work often broke barriers, and to conform to the old traditions of perfectly rhymed poetry would not suit Hemingway’s style.
Hemingway makes use of several literary devices in ‘Ultimately.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and imagery. The latter is perhaps the most important device at work in ‘Ultimately.’ As a very short poem, every literary device that the poet uses takes on enhanced importance. But the images in this piece are extra evocative. For example, words like “drooled and slobbered” as well as “dry-mouthed” and “spit out.” The best images in poetry are those that make the reader engage their senses and sights, smells, sounds, and tastes become real.
Alliteration is a type of repetition, one that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds. For example, “tried” and “truth” in line one and “drooled” and “dribbled” in lines three and four.
Personification is also quite apparent in this poem. As the poem progresses, it becomes more obvious as Hemingway describes “truth” as something that one can “spit” and slobber over.
Analysis of Ultimately
He tried to spit out the truth;
Dry-mouthed at first,
In the first lines of ‘Ultimately,’ the speaker begins by referring to an unnamed male character. The identity of this person is unimportant in the short lines of this piece, but it helps to imagine him as any human being suffering and struggling over the nature of truth. The poet describes this man as trying to “spit out the truth,” but being at first unable to bring it to his lips. There are desperation in this phrase. He isn’t trying to whisper it, saying it, or even scream it. He’s trying to spit it out as if he wants it out of his mouth as quickly as possible.
But, unfortunately, for this desperate man, he was “Dry-mouthed.” This suggests that despite his desire to do so, there was something stopping him from getting it out. There are several different possibilities for why this is the case, and depending on the reader different reasons will come to mind.
He drooled and slobbered in the end;
Truth dribbling his chin.
The image becomes richer in the final two lines as the truth moves from reticent to overwhelming. When at first the male main character in this short poem couldn’t manage to make spit in his mouth, now it’s overwhelming him. It was pouring from his mouth, dribbling down his chin for everyone to see. This suggests that the poem is an allegory for the nature of truth. That once a bit of it comes out, or one decides they want to share it, it’s impossible to stop it from pouring forth. The striking images in these lines depict truth as something messy and uncontrollable. The poem could also be read as a warning against sharing. As soon as one starts to tell the truth, a whole messy saga will follow.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Ultimately’ should also consider reading some other poems based around truth and fiction. For example,
- ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ by Emily Dickinson – is one of Dickinson’s best poems. It describes the power of truth and how taking it on a bit at a time is better than all at once.
- ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ by Anne Sexton – is a moving poem that describes the poet’s emotions after the deaths of her parents. She expresses a desire in the first part of the poem to escape the traditions of death and go somewhere entirely separate from her memories.
- ‘The House was Quiet and the World was Calm’ by Wallace Stevens – describes the relationship between a calm night and the written word. The speaker spends the poem wondering about what truth can be found in the latter, he hopes a perfect truth that isn’t available in the rest of the world.