The Promise by Jane Hirshfield is a reflection on how things in the poet’s life seem to drift away from her, leaving her behind. She asks objects such as ‘flowers’, a ‘spider’ and even her own ‘body’ to stay, but in the end they always leave or change. The final stanza of the poem focuses on asking lovers to stay, to which they answer ‘always’. This ending can be interpreted both positivity, in that they stay with her, or as a lie – a broken promise repeated lover after lover.
Explore The Promise
Structure and Form
The Promise is split into six stanzas of unequal length lines, with stanzas ranging from between two to six lines. Lines are typically finished by an end stop, with only three lines in the entire poem using enjambment. The meter is therefore very blunt, with the poem stopping and starting repeatedly, perhaps representing the relationship Hirshfield builds only to be left behind.
Throughout the lines there is a frequent use of caesura, which can be understood as a representation of the separation the poet finds between herself and another people/objects. A caesura breaks up the sentence, both grammatically and within the poem’s meter, demonstrating a linguistic pause as the lines read.
The poem uses anaphora, a technique where a word or phrase is repeated to begin each stanza. In this poem, the anaphora is comprised of only the word ‘Stay’, with the central plea being a focal point, and major theme of the poem.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Promise
The Promise begins with the indicative command, ‘Stay’, focusing the poem on this anaphoric plea. The first word is followed by a caesura in the form of a comma, acting as a short pause after this initial word. Hirshfield is placing emphasis on ‘stay’, with the moment of silence signifying the desperation of the poet.
This stanza focuses on the poet asking ‘the cut flowers’ to ’stay’ with her, yet they ‘bowed their heads lower’, ignoring her cry as they wilt. This is the first moment in which an element of nature does not ‘stay’ with the poet, with their drooping ‘heads’ an image which instils sadness within the opening stanza.
The enjambment between ‘bowed / their heads’ is a representation of the dropping flowers, their continuous wilt not stopping for the poet’s plea to ‘Stay’.
This stanza is two lines shorter than the first, but expresses much the same sentiment. Hirshfield requests that a ‘spider’ ‘stay’ with her, but still it ‘fled’, leaving her alone. The anaphora of ‘Stay’ is utilised again in the same form, with the dramatic pause caused by the caesura further compounding the sense of desperation after each chime of ‘stay’.
The shortness of this stanza could be a reflection of how, unlike the flowers, the ‘spider’ actually flees from Hirshfield. While the flowers droop and begin to die, they ultimately would still be in the same place, the wilting process taking more time than the simple action of fleeing.
Hirshfield’s plea moves to a ‘leaf’, the poet begging a third form of nature. In this stanza of The Promise, much like the flowers, the process which Hirshfield is trying to stop is a process of nature. Whilst the flowers wilt and die, the ‘leaf’ turns from green to ‘red’, reflecting the changing of the season.
In this stanza, the command to ‘stay’ is more abrupt, the ‘leaf’ being followed by a full stops to finish the line. This newfound quickness can be understood as a reflection of Hirshfield realising that her pleas are ineffective, being left alone no matter what she does.
The fourth stanza is directed at the poet’s own ‘body’, The Promise moving away from external aspects of nature and looking inward. While in stanza three nature was personified, here her body is dehumanised, relating it to a ‘dog’. This dehumanisation could suggest that she doesn’t have a good relationship with her body, perhaps feeling insecure or self-conscious.
Although not expressed literally within The Promise, we can assume, based on the idea of change detailed by stanza one and three, that the thing that is changing within this stanza is to do with her body weight. The idea of ‘obedient for a moment’ then followed by ‘soon starting to tremble’ resembling the failing of self control.
The fifth stanza of the poem is the longest of all, measuring six lines, and due to the length, detailing more than one thing that leaves her. She discusses a landscape, split into ‘valley meadows’ and the materials that compose it, ‘limestone and sandstone’. This stanza acts as the ultimate abandonment by nature, with a whole landscape failing to communicate with her. The final word of the stanza, ‘silence’, compounds this idea of being left alone, with the isolation evoked in the blank, expressionless environment causing the poet to feel that this aspect of nature has left her too.
The images within The Promise seem to expand in size, with this final plea to the landscape the most desperate of all. Yet, still, the poet is left alone, with even the materials that comprise the ‘fossil escarpments’ rejecting Hirshfield. The enjambment connecting ‘It looked back / with a changing expression, in silence’ could represent the cohesion of nature, something which she can never truly be a part of. Moreover, it could be interpreted as the distance between the poet and nature, ‘it looked back’ followed by a space manifesting the distance physically on the page.
The final stanza can be understood in many ways. Some readings of this poem discuss the final ‘always’ as suggesting love is the one thing that never leaves, always remaining even after natural things like ‘flowers’ and leaves have long passed.
Yet, due to the italics placed on ‘Always’, I would suggest that the comment is seen as ironic by the poet, with her actually rolling her eyes at how lovers have lied to her in their promise. This ‘Promise’ constitutes the title of the poem, with Hirshfield pointing out the deceit that humans are capable of. While the first five stanzas of the poems indicate a desperate and sad tone, the change to italics here, and the scorn which it involves, suggests that Hirshfield does not mind about nature leaving – indeed, it never said it would stay – but her lovers have lied, they said they would stay and didn’t.
Indeed, the suggestion of ‘loves’, in the plural form, suggests that there have been more than one. Of course, if the first would have stayed, then there wouldn’t be plural ‘lovers’, therefore they broke their promise to ‘stay’. This is a repeated offence, ‘each answered’, every lover Hirshfield takes deceiving her and eventually leaving.