‘The Cold Within’ by James Patrick Kinney is a beautiful poem that talks about the human passivity that holds one back from helping others. The cold is not outside but in the hearts that Kinney thought is the sole cause of all the human sufferings. Moreover, the ironic representation of the story along with the use of rhyming lines heightens the satirical effect in the poem. The story-like pattern of the poem no doubt appears like a parable that is meant for spreading the message of compassion and sacrifice for the sake of keeping the lamp of humanity bright.
‘The Cold Within’ by James Patrick Kinney presents the story of six men having six different personalities. Coincidentally, they were trapped in the bleak and bitterly cold weather. They all had one stick and refused to give any for burning the fire to keep them warm. The first man, a racist lad, refused to give his as there was a black man in the group. Whereas, the black man, vengeful and also a racist, thought to keep his stick “to spite the white”. The second man in the group, being a sectarian, didn’t give his as there was none from his community.
The third man, a poor in tattered clothes, naturally for the hatred towards the rich kept his stick back. In contrast, the rich man thought not to give his stick as he didn’t like the poor for their laziness and lack of ambition. And, the last man, an opportunist, only thought about capturing the sticks of others. In this way, they somehow resisted the external cold. But, in the end, “They died from the cold within.”
‘The Cold Within’ by James Patrick Kinney consists of eight four-line stanzas. The first and the last stanza is the introduction and the conclusion of the poem respectively. Whereas, the rest of the stanzas presents the activity of six men in that group. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is interesting enough. Only the second and third lines of the stanzas rhyme and the first and third lines don’t rhyme at all. So, the rhyme scheme of each stanza is “ABCB” and it goes on like this. Moreover, the poem is composed of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter alternatively. However, the second line of the second stanza contains a hypermetrical foot at the end. Apart from that, the nursery rhyme like rhythm is important as it heightens the ironical effect of the poem.
‘The Cold Within’ by James Patrick Kinney contains several literary devices. Likewise, there is personification in the first stanza of the poem. Here, the poet personifies happenstance or coincidence. In the second line, there is an alliteration in the phrase, “bleak and bitter”. There is an irony in the last line of this stanza. In the second stanza, there is a personal metaphor in “dying fire”. By using the word “black” the poet refers to a black man in the group. It is an example of synecdoche. Moreover, there is enjambment in the last two lines of the third stanza. In the following stanza, the poet uses interrogations or rhetorical questions in the last two lines.
Moreover, in the fifth stanza, the poet uses asyndeton in the last line for maintaining the metrical rhythm. In the sixth stanza, there is a metonymy in the first line. Here, the “black man’s face” represents the man himself. There is an allusion to the fallen spirits in the sixth stanza. In the same stanza, there is a metaphor in the line “Was how he played the game.” Here, “game” represents a person’s life. In the last stanza, the poet personifies death investing it with the idea of holding something back. There is an antithesis in the last two lines of the poem.
‘The Cold Within’ by James Patrick Kinney contains several important themes. The most important theme of the poem is selfishness. Here, the poet depicts the different manifestations of selfishness in men. He also talks about the origin of this “human sin” from the angle of men belonging from the distinct social order. Moreover, the poet presents themes such as rich vs poor, racism, sectarianism, and opportunism in the poem. Apart from that, the last stanza of the poem depicts the theme of spiritual death. However, there are also the themes of indifference and mutual hatred in the poem. It seems that the poet was somehow upset about the lack of compassion and love in modern society.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told
‘The Cold Within’ by James Patrick Kinney introduces the story of six men in the first stanza. As a parable, the poet presents six “humans” who were trapped by happenstance in bitterly cold weather. Each man possessed a stick of wood. In the last line, the poet makes it clear that the story he is going present is not written by him. This story existed before and he is presenting the essence of it in this poem. Moreover, the reference to those “six humans” is ironic for the use of the word “humans” in place of “men”.
Their dying fire in need of logs,
But the first man held his back.
For of the faces ’round the fire,
He noticed one was black.
From this section of ‘The Cold Within’ by James Patrick Kinney, the poet talks about the activity of each man in the group in the respective stanzas. Likewise, in this stanza, the poet refers to a man who due to his hatred towards black men, refused to give his stick for kindling the fire. The fire, a source of collective comfort, is used here as a metaphor for humanity. In the first line, the poet refers to the fire as “dying” depicting the loss of humanity in the modern world.
The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church.
And couldn’t bring himself to give
the fire his stick of birch.
In the third stanza of ‘The Cold Within’, James Patrick Kinney refers to another man in the group. He refused to give his stick as there was none from his community. The passivity of this person while facing a crisis is humorous. The poet ironically refers to the sectarianism prevalent among Christians. However, it is also a reference to the hypocrisy of pious men.
The third one sat in tattered clothes;
He gave his coat a hitch,
Why should his log be put to use?
To warm the idle rich?
In the fourth stanza of ‘The Cold Within’, the poet refers to the third man of that group. He was in tattered garments and “gave his coat a hitch” while his turn came. For hatred for rich men, he chose to suffer in the cold even though he could contribute his stick to the fire. At the moment of action, he thought why he should use his log to warm the rich man sitting in that group.
The rich man just sat back
And thought of the wealth he had in store,
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy, shiftless poor.
The fifth stanza of ‘The Cold Within’ is in contrast with the previous stanza. The poor think the rich idle and doing no work. And, the rich also thinks like that. So, the clash between rich and poor is nothing but a misunderstanding. Here, the poet depicts the difference between perception and reality. However, in this stanza, the rich man kept himself busy in thoughts. Without giving his stick, he thought about protecting what he accumulated throughout his life from the poor. So, he lived in the future without thinking about the present.
And the black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
The sixth stanza of ‘The Cold Within’ is in contrast with the second stanza. Here, the black man hated the white man of the second stanza. The fire had been put out already. But, he retained his stick to use it for beating the white man in the group. The man could give his stick to the fire but held it back for the lack of compassion. Moreover, the seed of hatred wasn’t sown by himself rather it was sown by society. However, this section is humorous and ironic as well.
The last man of this fallen group did nought,
Except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave,
Was how he played the game.
In this section of ‘The Cold Within’, the opportunist of the group gets highlighted. He was a business-minded person. As none contributed their sticks to the fire, he held his back. There was only the thought of materialistic gain even if the situation demanded something from him for the sake of his life. But, he played the “game” like that, neither investing a penny without purpose. In this way, he forgot the value of life.
Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They did not die from the cold without,
They died from the cold within.
In the last stanza of ‘The Cold Within’, they all died for their passivity. Here, the poet refers to their hands as the symbol of death. Their hands were stained by “human sin”. According to the poet, they didn’t die from the cold outside. The coldness in their hearts caused their spiritual death. The anaphora in the last two lines are used for emphasizing this idea.
‘The Cold Within’ by James Patrick Kinney is a parable that belongs to the modern period. It is written in the 1960s. In this poem, Kinney represents contemporary American society as a whole. The men in the group depict the class structure and their mindset. However, through this poem, the poet tried to give the message of compassion and brotherhood, mostly lacking in people in modern society.
Like ‘The Cold Within’ by James Patrick Kinney, the following poems are similar to the themes and subject matter present in Kinney’s poem.
- Mundus Et Infans by W.H. Auden – W.H. Auden satirically describes the selfishness of men through the life of an infant.
- The Sunshine Cat by Kamala Das – Kamala Das talks about the tragic consequences of a life of lust and selfishness.
- The Human Abstract by William Blake – William Blake presents his views against the traditional Christian virtues.
- The Broken Heart by William Barnes – William Barnes describes how selfishness gets destroyed by selfish and cruel motives.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Life here.