‘The Donkey’ by G.K. Chesterton is a four stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains follow a consistent rhyme scheme, conforming to the pattern of ABCB DEFE, alternating end sounds as the poem progresses.
There are a number of moments in which Chesterton utilizes half or slant rhymes. This is a type of rhyme that does not fully correspond with any other line but has elements that are connected. For example, there is a consonant rhyme between lines one and three of the first stanza. Then again, between lines one and three of the fourth stanza.
In regards to meter, the lines follow two different metrical patterns. The first occurs in lines one and three of each stanza. It is known as iambic tetrameter. This means that there are four sets of two beats in these lines. The first of the beats is unstressed and the second stressed. In lines two and four, the metrical pattern is iambic trimeter. Now, there are fewer syllables, only three sets of two beats per line.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by stating that as he was born he was made into something ugly. It was an unnerving time with a blood-red moon and flying fish. This adds to the strangeness around the donkey’s character. He speaks of himself in hateful and dark language. It is clear that before the events of the last stanza he had a negative opinion of his place in the world.
The poem concludes with the donkey describing how he was finally recognized by the masses. It was when Christ rode him into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Suddenly, everyone loved donkeys as they were forever tied to this story.
One of the most prominent techniques used by Chesterton is alliteration. This occurs when two or more words with the same starting sound appear near one another. For example, in the first and second lines, the speaker says “When fishes flew and forests walked / And figs…” The “f” sound is used four times within a condensed portion of ‘The Donkey.’ Other examples are less obvious and just consist of two words with the same starting letter near to one another. Such is the case with these two examples in stanza three, “Starve, scourge,” and “secret still.”
The tone of this piece changes dramatically from the first three stanzas to the last. At first, the speaker is contemplating the magic of his birth. He describes strange occurrences and things that are impossible. But as the poem progresses the tone gets darker. He tells the reader how monstrous his head is and how wrong his ears are. These lines are also somewhat depressing in tone as it is clear the donkey is an exile from the rest of earthly life.
In the final lines though the tone changes. It becomes much more uplifting and even prideful. After the events of one fateful hour the donkey became confident in the kind of creature he is.
Analysis of The Donkey
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by describing a creature that is never stated by name. Unless one has access to the title, then it will be difficult to suss out exactly what Chesterton has on his mind. Luckily, with the title, a reader knows from the start that the “I” speaking in the poem is a donkey.
The land and time into which this creature was born is a magical one. It was a place in which “fishes flew and forests walked.” There were “figs” growing on thorns and the “moon was blood.” This is a mystical language that evokes an image of a dark and strange land very different from the one that exists today.
What is interesting about this piece, and is uncovered in the last line of this stanza, is that the donkey is the speaker. He is describing this own birth, physical features, and secrets. The last line utilizes a first-person pronoun, “I,” for the first time. Now a reader is clear on what is going on here. The creature is giving a monologue about his state of being.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
In the next stanza, the speaker goes on to refer to himself as having a “monstrous head and sickening cry.” This is not a pleasant image, but it says a lot about the narrator that he speaks of himself this way. Perhaps these descriptions, as well as the next referring to him as having “ears like errant wings,” were things he was told when he was firstborn. Now he refers to himself this way.
In the next two lines, he states that he is the “devil’s walking parody.” He thinks of himself as some offshoot of the devil, but lacking all the parts that make him powerful. The donkey has the devil’s form but not his prestige.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
He goes on to describe himself as the “tattered outlaw of the earth.” His form is in shambles and he is forced to walk the earth without friends or even company. No one wants to claim him or those like him. This is all due to “ancient crooked will.” Something went wrong when the donkey was created. The “will” that made him was distorted at the time.
The donkey did not care what happened to him, for he had a secret. It is something that he’s never going to tell, no matter how much he is starved or derided. In the final stanza, the donkey’s tone transforms from the dark and depressing nihilistic one of the first three stanzas to an uplifting and prideful one.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
It is in the fourth stanza that the donkey casts off all the dispersions and proudly describes how everything changed for him. There was one “hour,” which was “far fierce…and sweet.” It was when Christ rode a donkey, apparently this same one, into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
The donkey looked down at the time and saw “palms before” his feet. There was a celebration all around him and he knew that he was redeemed in the eyes of the world. The donkey describes this experience as if it was him the crowd was celebrating rather than Christ and Christ’s message. This adds to the already distorted image he has of himself.