‘Ducks’ is a unique poem penned during World War I while the pope was a prisoner of war at the German Holzminden camp. He was inspired by a picture drawn by another prisoner. Today, the poem is often anthologized along with other poems Harvey wrote as a POW.
Ducks F.W. HarveyFrom troubles of the worldI turn to ducks,Beautiful comical thingsSleeping or curledTheir heads beneath white wingsBy water cool,Or finding curious thingsTo eat in various mucksBeneath the pool,Tails uppermost, or waddlingSailor-like on the shoresOf ponds, or paddling– Left! Right! – with fanlike feetWhich are for steady oarsWhen they (white galleys) floatEach bird a boatRippling at will the sweetWide waterway…When night is fallen you creepUpstairs, but drakes and dilliesNest with pale water-stars,Moonbeams and shadow bars,And water-lilies:Fearful too much to sleepSince they’ve no locksTo click against the teethOf weasel and fox.And warm beneathAre eggs of cloudy greenWhence hungry rats and leanWould stealthily suckNew life, but for the mienThe bold ferocious mienOf the mother-duck.Yes, ducks are valiant thingsOn nests of twigs and straws,And ducks are soothy thingsAnd lovely on the lakeWhen that the sunlight drawsThereon their pictures dimIn colours cool.And when beneath the poolThey dabble, and when they swimAnd make their rippling rings,0 ducks are beautiful things!But ducks are comical things:-As comical as you.Quack!They waddle round, they do.They eat all sorts of things,And then they quack.By barn and stable and stackThey wander at their will,But if you go too nearThey look at you through blackSmall topaz-tinted eyesAnd wish you ill.Triangular and clearThey leave their curious trackIn mud at the water’s edge,And there amid the sedgeAnd slime they gobble and peerSaying ‘Quack! quack!’When God had finished the stars and whirl of coloured sunsHe turned His mind from big things to fashion little ones;Beautiful tiny things (like daisies) He made, and thenHe made the comical ones in case the minds of menShould stiffen and becomeDull, humourless and glum,And so forgetful of their Maker beAs to take even themselves – quite seriously.Caterpillars and cats are lively and excellent puns:All God’s jokes are good – even the practical ones!And as for the duck, I think God must have smiled a bitSeeing those bright eyes blink on the day He fashioned it.And he’s probably laughing still at the sound that cameout of its bill!
‘Ducks’ by F.W. Harvey is a clever, upbeat poem that focuses on the appearance, sound, and amusing nature of ducks.
The first part of the poem describes how the speaker sees and finds entertainment in the appearance of ducks. They bring him peace and humor in equal measure. He notes how the ducks go to bed at night and how they swim and then ends the poem by stating what he thinks God must’ve been thinking when he made these small creatures.
Structure and Form
‘Ducks’ by F.W. Harvey is a three-part poem that’s divided into long stanzas. The first is thirty-four, the second is twenty-nine, and the third is fourteen. Due to the different line lengths and stanza lengths, the poet did not use a specific, consistent rhyme scheme. Despite this, there are some very clear examples of rhyme in the text. For example, “things” and “wings” in part one, as well as “water-stars” and “bars” later on in the poem.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. These include:
- Repetition: this poem is filled with repeated descriptions of a duck’s appearance and sound. For example, the poet repetitively mentions the sound ducks make.
- Personification: the use of human-specific descriptions that are used to describe something that’s not human. For example, writing that ducks are “Beautiful, comical things” and as wishing “you” ill.
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “fanlike feet” and “Sailor-like.”
From troubles of the world
I turn to ducks,
Beautiful comical things
Sleeping or curled
Their heads beneath white wings
By water cool,
Or finding curious things
To eat in various mucks
Beneath the pool,
Tails uppermost, or waddling
Sailor-like on the shores
Of ponds, or paddling
– Left! Right! – with fanlike feet
Which are for steady oars
When they (white galleys) float
Each bird a boat
Rippling at will the sweet
In the first lines of this three-part poem, the poet describes how the “ducks,” whether they’re sleeping or awake, are a place of solace from the pain and troubles of the world. The speaker can focus on the simple lives of birds to escape the larger issues he’s facing. This relates directly to the poem’s context, as noted above.
The speaker goes on to describe how the birds act differently depending on the day and their mood. Sometimes, they shuffle around humorously, while other times, they sit quite peacefully like a bat on the water. They move left and right with “fanlike feet,” the speaker adds. Like boats, the birds are free on the water, able to move at will.
When night is fallen you creep
Upstairs, but drakes and dillies
Nest with pale water-stars,
Moonbeams and shadow bars,
Fearful too much to sleep
Since they’ve no locks
To click against the teeth
Of weasel and fox.
And warm beneath
Are eggs of cloudy green
Whence hungry rats and lean
Would stealthily suck
New life, but for the mien
The bold ferocious mien
Of the mother-duck.
In the second section of Part I of ‘Ducks,’ the speaker describes how the night differs for ducks and for people. The poet makes a very intentional contrast between the beauty of night in nature and fear. The speaker says the ducks are too afraid to sleep, having to worry about weasels and foxes. This is implicitly contrasted with the life that someone who has locks on their doors live.
Yes, ducks are valiant things
On nests of twigs and straws,
And ducks are soothy things
And lovely on the lake
When that the sunlight draws
Thereon their pictures dim
In colours cool.
And when beneath the pool
They dabble, and when they swim
And make their rippling rings,
Oh ducks are beautiful things!
But ducks are comical things:-
As comical as you.
There is an exclamation in these lines, with the speaker stating that “ducks are beautiful things.” But, In the second part of the poem, the speaker calls ducks “valiant,” a term that readers are unlikely to relate to. It’s likely a surprising way to describe a small, usually overlooked creature. The speaker adds that they are “soothy things” that calm those who observe them as they live in peace in the wild.
at the same time, they are as “comical as you!” This seems to be an important point to the poet, who repetitively compares a duck’s beauty to its humor. The two things exist together, and the speaker is very aware of that.
Lines 15- 29
They waddle round, they do.
They eat all sorts of things,
And then they quack.
By barn and stable and stack
They wander at their will,
But if you go too near
They look at you through black
Small topaz-tinted eyes
And wish you ill.
Triangular and clear
They leave their curious track
In mud at the water’s edge,
And there amid the sedge
And slime they gobble and peer
Saying ‘Quack! quack!’
In the second part of this section, the speaker describes how ducks move, what they experience, what they look like, and more. They have small eyes that, when you observe them, have “topaz-tinted eyes.” The poet again uses an onomatopoeia, saying the words “Quack! Quack!” to mimic the sound ducks make. The lines are so focused on the appearance of the ducks that the speaker’s affection for them is impossible to ignore.
When God had finished the stars and whirl of coloured suns
He turned His mind from big things to fashion little ones;
Beautiful tiny things (like daisies) He made, and then
He made the comical ones in case the minds of men
Should stiffen and become
Dull, humourless and glum,
And so forgetful of their Maker be
As to take even themselves – quite seriously.
Caterpillars and cats are lively and excellent puns:
All God’s jokes are good – even the practical ones!
And as for the duck, I think God must have smiled a bit
Seeing those bright eyes blink on the day He fashioned it.
And he’s probably laughing still at the sound that came
out of its bill!
In the final part of ‘Ducks,’ the speaker concludes the poem by mentioning God, describing how God had made the entire world (big and little things) before he made “the comical ones in case the minds of men / Should stiffen and become / Dull.” The ducks, the speaker concludes, are a reminder not to take life “quite seriously.” Men, the speaker says, need this kind of reminder, and God knew that. The speaker asserts that perhaps God is still laughing today at the sound and appearance of the duck, pleased at the creation he’s made.
The theme is the way that animals, specifically ducks, can provide entertainment and a place of refuge for the mind. For the poet, who is likely the speaker of the poem as well, the ducks take his mind off of life by observing ducks outside.
The tone of Harvey’s poem ‘Ducks’ is appreciative and amused. The speaker finds the way ducks move and speak incredibly endearing and entertaining.
The purpose is to remind readers of how charming a simple creature, like a duck, can be. Although they can seem unintelligent and uninteresting, the speaker finds a great deal to appreciate in how they behave.
The poem ‘Ducks’ is about movements and appearance. It elevates them in readers’ minds, noting that there is a great deal to admire about them.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘The Duck’ by Ogden Nash – is a short eight-line poem that humorously talks about the duck and its sound.
- ‘The Duck and the Kangaroo’ by Edward Lear – is an upbeat and humorous poem that describes the evolving relationship between a duck and a kangaroo.
- ‘Animals’ by Walt Whitman – a poem describing the poet’s love for animals and their nature.