‘The Dash’ is a very popular poem in which the poet, Linda Ellis, explores themes of death, life, and the purpose of life. Her speaker investigates the meaning of “the dash” that separates two dates, one’s birth and one’s death. It is a small thing but it represents so much. The poem’s mood is uplifting and inspiring. It asks its readers to take a look at their own lives and reassess what they’re doing with their “dash”.
Explore The Dash Poem
Summary of The Dash
The poem begins with the speaker describing a speech they heard about. It was given by a man at a funeral who was addressing the life of his deceased friend. He asked everyone there to consider the “dash” in between the friend’s birth and death. That, he said, is what really matters. Using this little story as the basis for the poem, the speaker talks to the reader. They ask everyone to consider how they’ve been living their own dash and if after they’ve died they would be proud of what they’ve done.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of The Dash
‘The Dash’ by Linda Ellis is an eight stanza poem that is in this iteration separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. There are several different versions of this poem all of which have different line breaks, numbers of lines per stanza, and a number of stanzas. There are also variations on the text. Sometimes the deceased is a woman, sometimes a man, and sometimes a general “they”. The poem follows a very simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza.
Poetic Techniques in The Dash
Ellis makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Dash’. These include but are not limited to symbolism, alliteration, and enjambment. The first, symbolism, is when a poet uses objects, colours, sounds, or places to represent something else. In this case, the symbol of “the dash” is the focus of the entire poem.
It is very clearly introduced into the poem and in the third stanza defined. This is often not the case for symbols. But, Ellis does not use complex figurative language in ‘The Dash’. Instead, the language, the images, and the meanings behind them are very clear and require little interpretation to understand then.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “live” and “love” in the fourth stanza and “read” and “rehash” in stanza eight.
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 one and two of the first stanza and three and four of the fourth stanza.
Analysis of The Dash
Stanzas One and Two
I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.
In the first stanza of ‘The Dash,’ the speaker begins by starting a story. These are not their experiences but those belonging to a man they “read” about. In the second line, which describes the setting, there is a good example of alliteration with “funeral” and “friend”. At the funeral, this unnamed man addressed the crowd about his friend’s life. He took a look at the dates on the tombstone. There everyone could see the beginning and the end.
In between the two dates, there’s a dash and it is this dash that becomes the central focus of the poem. It was “what mattered most of all”.
Stanzas Three and Four
For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.
The dash, the speaker defines, represents every day that this person spent on earth and who they spent it with. A reader should take note of the fact that in this version of the poem the man speaking is male but the deceased is un-gendered. This allows a reader to consider any person, including themselves, as the deceased.
That “little line” (another example of alliteration) is worth a lot when one considers it, the man says. He goes into detail about what doesn’t matter in life in the fourth stanza. Life, its purpose, and its brevity is one of the major themes of ‘The Dash’. The man makes sure to note that it doesn’t matter if we own cars, houses, or cash. These things are useless in the end. What does matter is “how we spend our dash”.
Stanzas Five and Six
So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.
In the fifth stanza of ‘The Dash,’ the focus of the poem shifts slightly and the speaker addresses the reader. After hearing the story of the man’s speech at the funeral they’ve decided to reassess their own life. Now they are asking that the reader do the same. Using enjambment, the speaker asks the reader to remember that their time on earth is limited.
Everyone should, the speaker believes, be “less quick to anger” and show appreciation and patience with everyone. Love should be the primary emotion that “we” show.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?
In the final two stanzas of ‘The Dash,’ the speaker suggests that we should be more respectful, wear a smile and always keep in mind that “the dash” will at some point come to an end. It is limited.
The last quatrain asks the reader to consider, very directly, if they’d be proud of how they live their “dash”. The poem ends with this question and it is up to the reader to fill in the answer.