The Water Carrier

John Montague


John Montague

John Montague was an American poet whose writing touched on themes like national identity and loss.

His collections include A Drunken Sailor and The Dead Kingdom.

Within ‘The Water Carrier’ Montague explores themes of memory, nature, and nostalgia. Through a tone that is at times both calm and reverential, the poet creates a peaceful and reflective mood in ‘The Water Carrier’. He allows the reader, particularly through the use of the second person narrative perspective, to consider themselves as part of the story. 

The Water Carrier by John Montague


Summary of The Water Carrier 

The Water Carrier’ by John Montague contains a speaker’s nostalgia-filled memories of a chore he completed in his youth.

The poem takes a reader through the actions a young speaker took when he was a child. He was tasked with collecting water before and after school in two buckets. The poem is in the second person perceptive, allowing “you,” as the reader and as the intended listener, to enter into the poem. 

He addresses this unknown listener, asking them to recall what it was like to run through the woods and feel the water on their skin. The poem concludes in the present with the speaker admitting that he sometimes returns to the spring.

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of The Water Carrier 

‘The Water Carrier’ by John Montague is a nine stanza poem that’s divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets, and one single line that stands alone at the end of the poem. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, although there are examples of half and full rhyme at the ends of, and within, the lines. 

Full rhyme, also known as perfect or complete rhyme, can be seen at the ends of lines two and three of the second stanza with the words “stones” and “bones”. Another example can be found at the end of line three of the eighth stanza with the compound word “half-real” and at the end of the last line of the poem, “feel”. 

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. For example, the endings of lines one and two of the first stanza with “spring” and “evening”. Or, a reader can also look to stanza seven with “slight,” “stylize” and “life” all of which use the long “i” vowel sound. 


Poetic Techniques in The Water Carrier 

Montague makes use of several poetic techniques in The Water Carrier. These include simile, alliteration and enjambment. A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. 

There is an example in line two of the seventh stanza. It reads: “Like the portrait of an Egyptian water-carrier:”. Here, the speaker is describing how he wants to imagine “you” while “you” stand filling a bucket with water. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “stepped,” “slime-topped” and “stones” in line two of the second stanza and “fish flickered” in line two of the third stanza. 

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 instance, the transition between lines two and three of the fifth stanza and lines one and two of the sixth stanza. 


Analysis of The Water Carrier 

Stanza One

Twice daily I carried water from the spring,
Balanced as a fulcrum between two buckets.

In the first three lines of ‘The Water Carrier’  the speaker begins with a simple statement about his daily activities. Every day, twice a day, he “carried water from the spring”. A reader should take note of the use of the past tense in this poem, these things used to happen but they don’t anymore. 

He explains that he’d get water for his family before “leaving for school” and then in the evening when he got back. The balance inherent in this errand, once in the morning, once in the evening, is echoed by the reference to a “fulcrum” in the third line. There is an even, steadiness to what he did. It’s there in the timing and in the way he carried the buckets. 


Stanza Two

A bramble rough path ran to the river
With corners abraded as bleakly as white bones.

In the next three lines of ‘The Water Carrier,’ the speaker describes the path to the river and how one had to navigate it. It is also in these lines that he first uses the second person pronoun, “you”. These lines are directed at one particular person, but, because of the second-person perspective that the poet utilizes the reader is drawn into the poem as a character. 

The speaker describes how “you” walked artfully across the slippery stones. These stones had been worn away by water and foot traffic until the corners were “abraded” or eroded by friction. The poet uses a simile to compare the stones’ “white bones”.


Stanza Three

At the widening pool (for washing and cattle)
Circling to fill, with rust-tinged water.

When “you” got to the water you dipped the bucket in and filled it while the fish swam around in the water. It was “rust-tinged,” and not quite clear. The water they took from that location was used for washing and watering cattle. 


Stanza Four

The second or enamel bucket was for spring water
Came bubbling in a broken drain-pipe,

There was another bucket, this one “was for spring water”. The clearer water does not sit still. It moves, racing “through a rushy meadow”. The repetition of the “r” consonant sound in these lines is meant to mimic the sound of the water itself. The same can be said for the “b” words in the third line. They allude to the way the water bubbled up from “a broken drain-pipe”. 


Stanza Five

Corroded wafer thin with rust.
Like manacles of ice on the wrists.

The water that came out of the spring was different from what they got at the pool. It was freezing cold and “pure,” unsullied by washing or animals. It fell, the speaker adds (using another simile) “Like manacles of ice on the wrists”. The temperature of the water seemed to paralyze their hands it was so cold. 


Stanza Six

You stood until the bucket brimmed
That heavy greenness fostered by water.

The speaker describes “you” as standing with the bucket, waiting until it “brimmed” or filled to the top with water”. The scene was a beautiful one where “you” could “inhale” the smell of the “unpicked berries” that grew around the spring. The smell was of a “heavy greenness”. It was full, pleasant, and felt like life. The spring water was at its source and it “fostered” the growth around it just as it fosters the families who collect it. 


Stanza Seven

Recovering the scene, I had hoped to stylize it,
But pause, entranced by slight but memoried life.

When the speaker thought back on this time and “Recover[ed]” the scene he wanted to “stylize it”. He thought it might come into his mind “Like the portrait of an Egyptian water-carrier”. There is something majestic, otherworldly, and out-of-time about this memory. It is clearly an important one for him. 

The memory caused him to pause and considered it. It is “memoried life” made real within his mind but far in the past. 


Stanzas Eight and Nine

I sometimes come to take the water there,
Some living source, half-imagined and half-real,

Pulses in the fictive water that I feel.

In the last tercet of ‘The Water Carrier’ the speaker turns away from the past to the present. He says that nowadays he sometimes comes to “take the water there”. He doesn’t do this in order to find “refuge” in a happy memory or return to the past but in order to connect to “some pure thing”. The speaker feels in the water, and in the memories that are associated with it, something that is half-real, half-imagined. His life has been transformed by nostalgia and the passage of time. But, he wants to feel the water and tap into its “fictive” or fictional, qualities. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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