Personification, such as in ‘Opportunity’, is one of the most interesting devices poetry allows authors to utilize. It enables well-constructed poems to examine abstract concepts using relatable metaphors that make sense to the average person — because that’s what the personification metaphor does. Even something as abstract as an opportunity, as is the case in James Elroy Flecker’s poem of the same name, can be made into a human shape and figure that can speak with and understand casual everyday references and ideas. ‘Opportunity’ gives the reader the chance to question such a being an opportunity itself, something that is not, of course, possible, but becomes possible in a powerful and artistic way. Flecker’s choice of accompanying language completes the circle, and the result is ‘Opportunity’, a truly thought-provoking work that stands out in the memory of his legacy.
‘But who art thou, with curious beauty graced,
O woman, stamped with some bright heavenly seal
Why go thy feet on wings, and in such haste?’
‘I am that maid whose secret few may steal,
Called Opportunity. I hasten by
Because my feet are treading on a wheel,
In an interesting choice by James Elroy Flecker, the poem begins by introducing the reader to both of the narrators of the piece, which begins with quotation marks, and continues throughout. The poem is structured mostly in groups of threes, rhyming in an ABA pattern, and without any particular adherence to syllable length. The language used is eloquent and of a style that might be best described as “romanticized poetic,” which fits in nicely with its philosophical theme; the older-styled language (long discontinued, as Flecker lived between 1884 and 1915, a time long after “thou” and other similar words had lost their use in the English language (save for in a few regions).
The poem begins with the first narrator asking about the identity of the second one — she is a woman, with graceful beauty and divine power. She is described as being quick in movement, and has winds on her feet. The phrasing of the question is designed to pique interest in the reader, as it describes the woman’s most desirable features, making reference to her heavenly qualities and divine physicality. She responds to his question by stating that she is a secret that not many can know, and her name is Opportunity. She references that she is always moving quickly because she has to; her feet are on a wheel. This is a likely reference to the nature of opportunity as something that comes and goes quickly, and often without warning.
Being more swift to run than birds to fly.
And rightly on my feet my wings I wear,
To blind the sight of those who track and spy;
Opportunity continues her explanation, saying that she can run faster than birds can fly and she wears wings on her feet because they make her look enrapturing to those who notice her. By now it is clear that this woman is the personification of the concept of opportunity, and this verse discusses its fleeting nature, but the way that it remains within the sights of those who keep an eye out for it.
Rightly in front I hold my scattered hair
To veil my face, and down my breast to fall,
Lest men should know my name when I am there;
And leave behind my back no wisp at all
For eager folk to clutch, what time I glide
So near, and turn, and pass beyond recall.’
Opportunity finishes her answer to the original speaker by describing how she takes care to hide her identity when she is around men, making reference to her own seduction, which she avoids so as to not temp men who will reach for her only after she is gone. These verses are a little more ambiguous, but likely are suggesting that most do not recognize an opportunity until after the time to take advantage of it has passed — in this metaphor, it is like a beautiful woman who offers men the chance to get to know her, except no one knows who to look for, because her face is veiled and her hair covers most of her chest. In the same way, many do not know what to look for when they seek opportunity and don’t recognize its presence among them.
‘Tell me; who is that Figure at thy side?’
‘Penitence. Mark this well that by decree
Who lets me go must keep her for his bride.
And thou hast spent much time in talk with me
Busied with thoughts and fancies vainly grand,
Nor hast remarked, O fool, neither dost see
How lightly I have fled beneath thy hand.’
The final verses allow the unknown speaker to ask one final question, namely who a previously unknown third figure is. Standing at the side of Opportunity is Penitence, who follows Opportunity and stays behind to wed those who do not wed Opportunity first. This is indicative of how those who let a good opportunity get by are comforted only by their own regret at having let it slip away from them. Whenever Opportunity passes, those who meet her are either left to be with her, or forced to be with Penitence forever, since that particular opportunity will not return.
The poem closes on a poignant reminder — with Opportunity pointing out to the first speaker that instead of being with her or taking her in any way, the first narrator has instead chosen to talk about opportunity instead, and in doing so, they have failed to notice that she has been getting away even as they discuss the very pattern being experienced. She calls the speaker a fool for experiencing delusions of grandeur as opposed to actually doing something to achieve them — but now it is too late. The poem has ended, and Opportunity is gone, reminding the reader the thinking about an opportunity is not the same thing as seizing the moment, and that the more time that is spent considering the nature of something, the more time it has to get away, leaving only penitence in its wake.