Happiness by Jane Kenyon

Within ‘Happiness’ Kenyon explores what it means to lose and gain happiness and the different forms it might take in one’s mind as it comes and goes. She is interested in exploring themes of unhappiness, happiness, and human life. 

Kenyon’s tone is contemplative and considerate as she depicts the different ways happiness can enter into one’s life. This tone, and the metaphors she employees, work together to create a reflective and realistic mood in ‘Happiness’. 


Summary of Happiness

‘Happiness’ by Jane Kenyon speaks on the nature of happiness and uses metaphors to compare it to mysterious travelling figures and lost relatives. 

The poem begins with the speaker comparing the emotion happiness to a “prodigal” who has been gone for a long time but has finally returned. Rather than scorning the lost relative for its disappearance, “you” embrace it as you would happiness. The next comparison is similar, suggesting that happiness is an unknown uncle who while going house to house looking for somewhere to spend the night stumbles upon your own. 

The last lines describe how happiness comes to everyone, from the dog to the woman cleaning the street. Even, the last lines state, to a boulder and a weary wine glass. 

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of Happiness

Happiness’ by Jane Kenyon is a four stanza poem that’s separated into uneven numbers of lines. The first stanza has four lines, the second: eight, the third: seven and the fourth is the longest at twelve lines. The poet did not decide to imbue this piece with a specific rhyme scheme but that does not mean the lines are without rhyme. There are numerous instances of half-rhyme within the text. Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme,  is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. 

There are examples throughout the poem, as there are in most pieces of poetic writing. These include “wineglass” and “pine” in the fourth stanza and “flies” and “finds” in the third stanza. Full rhyme can also be found within the lines, when distributed throughout the text rather than at the end it is known as internal rhyme. It occurs through the repetition of words like “you”in the second stanza. 


Poetic Techniques in Happiness

Kenyon makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Happiness’. These include alliteration, enjambment, caesura, and metaphor. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “birch broom” in line three of the fourth stanza and “clerk,” “cans,” and “carrots” in line seven of the same stanza. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. An interesting division occurs partway through the fourth stanza when the second half of the eighth line is indented down, creating a new line, and therefore creating a caesura-like division. This division marks a transition into the last four lines of the poem and the final metaphoric comparison. 

A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. For example, happiness is compared in the first stanza to a “prodigal son” and in the third to “the uncle you never / knew about”. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines three and four of the fourth stanza.


Analysis of Happiness 

Stanza One

The first stanza of ‘Happiness,’ begins with the speaker making the very simple statement that there is: “no accounting for happiness”. She’s describing its unknowable nature, how despite one’s best efforts to figure it out, its really impossible to comprehend fully. The text lines provide a metaphor that’s meant to expand on one’s understanding of happiness’s strange habits and mysterious personality. 

Using personification she speaks on it as a “prodigal” child, someone who has been gone for a long time and then reappears. In this case, happiness is depicted as a human who wanders away for a long time. Then comes back once it has “squandered a fortune far away”.


Stanza Two 

In the next lines she begins with a question, she asks the reader how they, someone on the receiving end of returning happiness could “not forgive” it. You would, she adds, of course celebrate its return and even have a metaphorical “feast in honor of what  / was lost”. 

The happiness and its return, in the form of a long lost, prodigal relative brings “you” to tears. You “weep night and day” finding joy in the realization that “you were not abandoned”. There is much pleasure to be had in feeling as though you’ve been granted something special. Happiness saved itself for “you alone”.


Stanza Three 

In the next stanza of ‘Happiness’ the speaker negates her previous comparison to a prodigal relative and turns to speak on happiness as an “uncle”. This person is someone you “never / knew about”. He lives in a different way, moving from place to place without a single residence. The man, who represents happiness, inquires at “every door” until he stumbles upon “you asleep midafternoon”. This period of sleep is part of a very different emotion, despair. He finds you there and his new presence ends your period of unhappiness. 


Stanza Four 

The fourth stanza is the longest, in these lines the speaker uses anaphora. She begins multiple lines with “It” and creating a list-like collection of character traits. Happiness, “it,” comes to the “monk in his cell” and the “woman sweeping the street”. Both these characters are solitary, as is the “child / whose mother has passed out from drink”. It comes to those in need when they are not expecting it. The lover might receive it or the dog that spends its days chewing on a sock. 

The list continues with a “basketmaker’ and a “clerk” working in a grocery store. It is at this point in the poem that there is a break in the eighth line. This tradition marks a shift into the last four lines of the poem. Here, the speaker takes “happiness” which has been given to human beings, and one dog, out of the mundane world. She introduces it to nature. It is given to a “boulder” in the “shade” of trees as well as to rain. Most notably and endearingly to “the wineglass” that’s feeling “weary of holding wine”. 

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