‘Plenty’ by Isobel Dixon is an eight stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific pattern of rhyme although there are a number of moments in which the lines are connected to one another via half or slant rhyme.
The poem begins with the speaker informing the reader that she had four siblings and they all tormented their mother. The family lived in poverty, without enough water to run a full bath. Although the speaker was always present in the house, she didn’t realize that it was due to money concerns that her mother was never truly happy. The speaker states that all the children thought their mother was mean.
Now that she is older, the speaker is able to look back on her life and know why her mother acted the way she did. She misses the interactions with all of her family members and still carries a bit of guilt for what she has now, compared to then, when taking a full bubble bath.
You can read the full poem here.
Assonance and Consonance
This means that only parts of word rhyme. In ‘Plenty’ there are examples of end rhymes with assonance (vowel rhyme) and consonance (consonant rhyme). A few examples include lines one and four of stanza two which end with the “—t” sound as well as lines one and two of stanza four with the “—d” sound.
Assonance is clearly seen throughout these pieces and most prominently within the lines. The vowel sounds repeat themselves at the beginning, and inside words. One example is the “a” sound in the line, “and anchored down, in anger at some fault –“ in stanza two. Or, line four of stanza six with the line, “our old compliant co-conspirators.”
One of the most important themes of this piece is time (similar to the theme in Time by Percy Bysshe Shelley). It is seen through the change in the speaker’s perspective, especially when it comes to her past. The passage of time transforms her image of her mother, as well as that of her sisters, from when she was a child till now. This theme relates to another that is perhaps even more important: relationships. The poem touches on a number of relationships, such as those between the speaker and her siblings and the speaker and her mother. There are a couple of different versions of these relationships and they evolve and change with the speaker’s age.
Analysis of Plenty
When I was young and there were five of us,
all running riot to my mother’s quiet despair,
our old enamel tub, age-stanied and pocked
upon its griffin claws, was never full.
In the first stanza of ‘Plenty’ the speaker begins by describing the basic parts of her childhood. She is reminiscing on past times when she was “young” and spending time with her four siblings. They were all taken care of by their mother, who was stuck in a “quiet despair.” The speaker does not explain the cause of this despair, but the factors contributing to it become clear as the lines progress. It was something that a child might’ve noted, but not known how to handle.
When the five children were young they would run through the house as if in a “riot.” The speaker also mentions the poverty that they lived in. When they bathed, they used an “old enamel tub” that was stained by age and “never full.” She explains why in the next lines.
Such plenty was too dear in our expanse of drought
and anchored down, in anger at some fault –
The family was unable to afford to fill the tub completely. It was “too dear “ in the “drought’ they were in. It was during a period in which things never seemed to work right, at least for the speaker’s family. There were dams that leaked till they were dry and windmills that stalled. The speaker, in a childish way, compares these leaky dams and stalled windmills to “Mommy’s smile.”
The mother was empty of joy. Her lips were always “stretched” around anger. The speaker explains why she thought her mother was so angry in stanza three.
of mine, I thought – not knowing then
the spilling: sums and worries, shopping lists
In the third stanza, the speaker begins by finishing up the phrase started in stand two. She always assumed that her mother was angry at her, and that’s why she smiled the way she did. This was not true, a fact the speaker didn’t realize this until she was much older. Now, since she is an adult herself, she has learned that it was to keep all the things her mother worried about from spilling out into her children’s lives. She had a “chaos” inside her that she tried to keep her family safe from.
A reader should also take note of the use of alliteration in the next two lines. Dixon uses “s”to begin six of the words in lines three and four of this stanza. This helps build up tension in the list as it grows into stanza four.
for aspirin, porridge, petrol, bread.
Her mouth a lid clamped hard on this.
In the next lines of ‘Plenty’ the speaker continues her list of things her mother worried about. These included mostly household items, such as toilet paper and food.
The speaker knows now how her mother felt. It is described through hyperbole in line three. The mother always thought that each “month was weeks too long.” This is likely a reference to when she is going to get paid and have enough money to supply the family with more of the things they need. In the last line, the speaker reiterates that her mother kept her “mouth” as a lid, “clamped hard” down on everything she feared.
We thought her mean. Skipped chores,
stole another precious inch
The speaker returns to her thoughts as a child. When she didn’t understand her mother’s life, she thought “her mean,” as did all her siblings. They acted immaturely as if to get back at their mother’s meanness. Every time she wasn’t in the room they skipped their chores or “swiped biscuits” from the cabinets.
At the same time, and it is clear this is something the speaker regrets, they “stole another precious inch” of water. This is described further in stanza six.
up to our chests, such lovely sin,
our old compliant co-conspirators.
The speaker takes her time describing what it was exactly she stole. Finally, she gets to the fact that it was water. They turned the taps on and luxuriated in the “secret warmth” that came from “fat brass taps.” She and her “co-conspirators” loved these moments in which they could push back against their mother’s strict rules.
Now bubbles lap my chin. I am a sybarite.
I leave the heating on.
The description of these moments of happiness in the bath continues into stanza seven and the speaker compares them to what her life is like now. She thinks of herself as a “sybarite,” or someone who is self-indulgent in their pleasure.
The speaker is now able to run a bath and have the bubbles come up to her “chin.” She can leave the water on and it will continue to run, it is “plentiful.” To an extent, the speaker feels guilty about the life she has now. It is so different from the one her mother knew and it makes her miss the moments when they were all together as a family.
And miss my scattered sisters,
of lean, dry times and our long childhood.
In the last lines of ‘Plenty’ the speaker gives in fully to the nostalgia that had been building throughout the last seven stanzas. She misses her “scattered sisters” and the “squabbles” they had in the bathroom. Although it did not seem like something to be appreciated and loved then, the structure of her youth feels important now.
More than anything else though, she misses the moments in which her mother’s “smile” (which was more like a frown) became real. It was “loosed” from the “dry times of” her “long childhood.” These were pure moments that won’t come again.