When I Was Prettiest in My Life

Ibaragi Noriko

‘When I Was Prettiest in My Life’ by Ibaragi Noriko is a powerful poem written after World War II that explores the juxtaposition between beauty and war. 

Ibaragi Noriko

Nationality: Japanese

Ibaragi Noriko (1926 - 2006) was an influential Japanese poet.

She expressed profound emotions through poetry and captured the essence of post-war experiences.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Beauty does not equal happiness

Themes: Beauty, Recovery, War

Speaker: The poet

Emotions Evoked: Confidence, Fear, Hope

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 20th Century

This is a uniquely powerful poem that contrasts personal beauty with a terrible and terrifying contemporary setting.

This poem was originally written in Japanese and was later translated into English by Naoshi Koriyama and Edward Lueders. The poem captures the contradictions and complexities of the poet’s personal experience, combining elements of beauty, destruction, longing, and resilience.


‘When I Was Prettiest in My Life’ by Ibaragi Noriko is a unique poem that was inspired by the poet’s experiences during World War II. 

In the first lines of this poem, the poet reflects on a period in her life when she considered herself to be at the height of her beauty. However, during this time, she witnesses the crumbling of cities and the loss of countless lives in factories, at sea, and on nameless islands. 

The other people around her are consumed by military duty, leaving behind only their empty eyes, and the country experiences the devastating loss of the war. This leads the poet to question the truth of the situation as she walks through a town devoid of pride. 

Amidst this turmoil, jazz music from a foreign land provides a brief respite, but the poet remains deeply unhappy, absurd, and profoundly lonely. 

In response, she resolves to live a long life, much like Rouault of France (a very specific allusion), who created magnificent artwork in his old age.

Structure and Form 

‘When I Was Prettiest in My Life’ by Ibaragi Noriko is a seven-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains, and one final stanza of three lines (known as a tercet). The poem was originally written in Japanese and was later translated by Naoshi Koriyama and Edward Lueders. The translation means that many of the literary devices seen between are present because of the translation to English. 

Literary Devices 

In this poem, the poet makes use of a few different literary devices. For example: 

  • Juxtaposition: The poem employs the contrast between personal beauty and societal turmoil, as well as the contrast between external appearances and internal emotions, to highlight the complexities of the speaker’s experiences.
  • Simile: The line “Feeling dizzy, as if I’d broken a resolve to quit smoking” employs a simile to compare the speaker’s feeling of dizziness to the breaking of a resolve to quit smoking, creating a vivid and relatable image.
  • Symbolism: The crumbling cities and the blue sky appearing in unexpected places symbolize the destruction and upheaval caused by war, representing the larger societal turmoil.
  • Irony: The poem employs irony to highlight the contrast between the speaker’s physical beauty and their inner unhappiness, absurdity, and loneliness.

Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

When I was prettiest in my life,
the cities crumbled down,
and the blue sky appeared
in the most unexpected places.

The first stanza of the poem, and the following stanzas, are all written as quatrains, or stanzas of four lines. The lines present a contrast between the speaker’s personal beauty and the crumbling of cities. The stanza begins with the speaker reflecting on a time when they considered themselves to be at the peak of their physical attractiveness. This suggests a period of youth or vitality in her life.

However, the stanza takes a sudden shift in tone as the speaker describes the cities crumbling down. This imagery implies a sense of destruction, chaos, and loss. 

It could symbolize the breakdown of societal structures or the consequences of war or other calamities.  It’s likely that here the poet is alluding to World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Images that could relate to these events are seen throughout the rest of the poem. 

The juxtaposition of personal beauty with the crumbling cities emphasizes the stark contrast between individual experiences and the larger events happening in the world.

The appearance of the blue sky, often associated with hope and freedom, creates a stark contrast (another example of juxtaposition) against the backdrop of destruction.

Stanzas Two and Three

When I was prettiest in my life,
I lost the chance to dress up like a girl should.

When I was prettiest in my life,
They all went off to the front, leaving their beautiful eyes behind.

In the second stanza, the speaker reveals that while she was at her most attractive, many people around her were being killed. The use of the phrase “a lot of people” indicates a significant loss of life, suggesting the speaker’s proximity to violence or conflict

This paints a very grim and disturbing picture of a society caught in the grip of destruction and loss. The stanza concludes with the speaker expressing a sense of personal loss, stating that they “lost the chance to dress up like a girl should.” This line suggests that the speaker’s youthful experiences and expressions of femininity were interrupted or denied due to the prevailing circumstances.

Later, the focus shifts to the absence of meaningful connections and gestures during this period. The speaker states that no men offered them thoughtful gifts, indicating a lack of romantic or affectionate gestures. Instead, the men around them only knew how to salute in a military fashion, highlighting their preoccupation with their duty or the war they were involved in.

The stanza concludes by noting that these men went off to the front, leaving their beautiful eyes behind. This line has a great deal of symbolism, conveying a poignant sense of loss and separation from the past.

Stanza Four 

When I was prettiest in my life,
striding, with my sleeves rolled up, through the prideless town.

The fourth stanza uses the refrain, “When I was prettiest in my life,” once again.  The juxtaposition of the speaker’s personal beauty with the country’s loss creates a powerful contrast between individual experiences and the larger collective experience of war.

The speaker’s response to this loss is captured in the line, “How can it be true?” This question expresses disbelief or shock at the reality of her country’s defeat. The loss is very hard to understand and even harder to handle. 

Stanza Five 

When I was prettiest in my life,
I devoured the sweet music of a foreign land.

The fifth stanza brings jazz music into the equation. Jazz music, known for its improvisation and vibrant rhythms, is often associated with freedom, expression, and a break from convention. Its presence suggests a temporary escape or diversion from the harsh realities surrounding the speaker’s war-torn country. 

The speaker describes feeling dizzy, comparing this to the feeling of recently breaking the resolve to quit smoking. This simile implies a sense of indulgence or surrenders to a pleasurable sensation, despite prior intentions to resist.

Stanza Six

When I was prettiest in my life,
I was helplessly lonely.

The poet goes on, in this stanza, by saying that this was (again) the “prettiest” time in her life. But, it was also the time that she was the “most unhappy” and the most “lonely.” The poet’s assertions remind readers that there is a disconnect between appearance and emotional well-being. 

It suggests that the speaker’s personal beauty did not equate to a sense of contentment or fulfillment. This realization challenges societal expectations.

Stanza Seven 

Therefore I decided to live a long time, if I could,
who painted magnificent pictures in his old age.

The final stanza is a tercet or a set of three lines. This stanza is the only one that takes this particular form. 

These wonderful concluding lines reveal the speaker’s resolution and her aspirations for the future. It conveys a sense of resilience and determination to live a fulfilling life despite the hardships and contradictions they have experienced.

The speaker then mentions old Rouault of France, an artist known for painting magnificent pictures in his old age. This reference serves as an example and inspiration for the speaker’s own aspirations. 

It suggests that, like Rouault, who found creative fulfillment and produced remarkable works of art later in life, the speaker seeks to find purpose as she grows older.


What is the main theme of the poem ‘When I Was Prettiest in My Life?’

The main theme of the poem is the juxtaposition between personal beauty and societal turmoil and the disillusionment that arises from this contrast. The poem explores the speaker’s experiences during a time when they considered themselves to be at their physical best but also endured incredible unhappiness. 

How does the speaker’s emotional state evolve throughout the poem?

At the beginning of the poem, when the speaker is thinking about a time when she was considered prettiest, there is a wistful tone that suggests a fond remembrance of that period. However, as the poem progresses, the speaker’s emotions become more complex and nuanced.

How does the poet use juxtaposition in this poem? 

The poet utilizes juxtaposition in ‘When I Was Prettiest in My Life’ to create contrasts and highlight the disparities between different elements in the poem. The poet juxtaposes the speaker’s sense of being at their prettiest with the crumbling of cities, loss of lives, and the impact of war.

What is the tone of ‘When I Was Prettiest in My Life?’

This poem’s tone is a mix of melancholy, introspection, and resignation. The poem conveys a sense of nostalgia and reflection as the speaker looks back on a period in their life when they considered themselves to be at their physical best.

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:

  • Beautyby Edward Thomas – this poem contains the poet’s definition of what beauty is and how he encounters and experiences it in his life.
  • Let Us Be Midwives’ by Sadako Kurihara – is a powerful wartime poem that describes a few moments of despair and a few of hope in the aftermath of the atomic bombing.
  • November’ by William Stafford – is a heart-wrenching and important poem that was inspired by the WWII bombing of Hiroshima.

Poetry+ Review Corner

When I Was Prettiest in My Life

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Ibaragi Noriko (poems)

Ibaragi Noriko

This poem showcases the poet's ability to delve into complex emotions and capture the contradictions of human experiences. Her poetry often explores personal beauty, societal turmoil, and the impact of war. Through her use of various literary devices, Noriko crafts evocative and thought-provoking verses that invite readers to reflect on the deeper meaning of beauty, the complexities of life, and the pursuit of happiness. This is one of her best, and better-known poems.
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20th Century

This poem is a poignant example of 20th century poetry, reflecting the tumultuous events and shifting perspectives of the era. It captures the disillusionment and loss experienced by individuals during times of war and societal upheaval. Despite this, the poem is not well-known, nor is it commonly cited as one of the best poems of the period.
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Noriko, being a Japanese poet, infuses elements of Japanese poetry into the poem. While not explicitly adhering to a specific form like haiku or tanka, the poem carries a sense of simplicity, introspection, and emotional resonance often associated with Japanese poetry. Despite this, it's not a well-known poem.
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The poem challenges traditional notions of beauty by juxtaposing personal attractiveness with the harsh realities of war and societal turmoil. Noriko prompts readers to consider the fleeting nature of beauty and its limited capacity to guarantee happiness.
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Though not explicitly mentioned, the poem alludes to the process of recovery in the aftermath of war. The speaker's introspective reflections and decision to live a long life despite the hardships convey a sense of resilience and hope. Noriko suggests that recovery is possible, even amidst the lingering effects of war.
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War is a prevalent theme in the poem, representing the disruptive force that shatters lives and societies. Noriko portrays the devastating effects of war on individuals, highlighting the loss of loved ones and the destruction of cities. The poem captures the emotional toll of war, revealing the profound impact it has on personal happiness.
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The poem grapples with the speaker's dwindling confidence in the midst of personal and societal turmoil. The contrast between the speaker's prettiness and their unhappiness reveals a loss of confidence in the power of beauty to bring joy or fulfillment. Yet, the resolve to live a long time implies a rekindling of confidence.
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Fear permeates the poem as the speaker confronts the impact of war and the loss of personal happiness. The fear of losing loved ones, of living in a prideless town, and the fear of loneliness are all present in the poem. Noriko highlights the role of fear in shaping experiences and emotions.
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Amidst the somber tones of the poem, hope emerges as a flickering light. The speaker's resolve to live a long life reflects a glimmer of hope, a belief in the possibility of finding beauty, fulfillment, and purpose beyond the difficulties they have experienced.
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Beautiful Women

The poem touches upon the concept of beauty in relation to women. It challenges the notion that physical beauty alone defines a woman's worth or happiness. Through the speaker's experiences, Noriko suggests that true beauty lies in the depth of emotion and happiness.
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Change is a recurring theme in the poem, reflected in the shifting circumstances, emotions, and perceptions of the speaker. The juxtaposition of personal beauty and societal turmoil underscores the transformative power of change and a change of circumstances.
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While the poem does not focus on physical combat, it touches upon the idea of fighting in a broader sense. The speaker's reflections on war and the impact it has on individuals imply a fight for survival, for maintaining personal integrity amidst challenging circumstances.
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World War Two (WWII)

While not mentioned directly, the poem's references to war and societal turmoil indicate a connection to the context of World War II. It offers a glimpse into the personal experiences and emotions of individuals during this tumultuous period. By exploring the impact of war and loss, the poem engages with the broader historical backdrop of World War II.
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The poem follows a quatrain structure consisting of four-line stanzas. This traditional poetic form allows for concise and focused expressions of emotion and reflection. The use of quatrains lends a sense of rhythm and structure to the poem.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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