Things by Lisel Mueller explores loneliness, how humans have reacted to this emotion in the form of personifying their surroundings. Mueller suggests that humans have a tendency to fear being alone. From this, we have created a series of personified objects, ingraining personification in our everyday language. Things documents this obsession, moving through objects as Mueller explores the world.
Summary of Things
The poem begins with small objects, like a ‘clock’ ‘face’ to show how personification has leaked into the colloquial English language. Mueller then moves to more specific and larger objects, ‘tongues inside bells’ showing the language of objects. The final stanza focuses on the largest forms of personification, talking about the ‘heart’ of a ‘country’ and the ‘mouth’ of a ‘cave’. Mueller writes Things to display how human loneliness has caused people to reach out to the inanimate parts of our lives, using personification to feel less alone.
You can read the full poem Things here.
Form and Structure
Lisel Mueller splits Things into four stanzas. These stanzas measure between three and six lines, changing in each stanza. The inconsistency of structure could reflect the random nature of the objects Mueller has chosen. These items span from ‘shoes’ to ‘storms’, covering a huge quantity of personified objects.
Themes in Things
Mueller discusses loneliness as the central theme of Things. The poet argues that people who are lonely use their minds to create personified objects in order to surpass the feeling of being alone. Even in inanimate objects, these strange words taken from personification have flourished in the English language. From a clock-face to ‘mouth’ of a ‘cave’, English is filling with moments of personification.
Another theme that Mueller briefly touches on towards the end of the poem is arrogance. The poet discusses ‘recast[ing]’ nature ‘in our image’. Although in one scenario this is about support from loneliness, it could also be seen as self-important. Why do we level with nature, drawing an equal line between them through the imposition of human-based qualities? Mueller points this out, using the diverse array of examples to demonstrate how widespread this imposition has become.
One technique that Mueller employs when writing Things is personification. This is the whole poem, the core concept, and the main technique are both personifications. By giving inanimate objects human characteristics, the poet suggests that lonely people can surround themselves with person-esque images and ideas. Personification allows them to do this and has subsequently permeated deep into the English Language.
Another technique that Mueller uses when writing Things is the pronoun. Much of the poem is framed through the plural pronoun ‘we’. IN doing this, Mueller reveals that she is commenting on humans in general. This poem is not based on her personal experience, rather on what she has observed of the world. This is equally detaching and unifying, allowing the poem to feel more personal by including the reader in the ‘we’ pronoun.
What happened is, we grew lonely(…)which will never suffer fatigue.
Mueller begins the poem by using a caesura within the first line. This slight pause creates a metrical break, the poet stopping before launching into her poem. The fact she is discussing loneliness could also suggest that this pause is a moment of reflection, ‘What happened is’ people ‘grew lonely’. By placing ‘lonely’ syntactically final on the first line, this word becomes emphasized. Indeed, the state of being ‘lonely’ is what causes mass personification. Mueller, therefore, places this state at a point of importance within the poem.
The lack of specificity within the word ‘things’ signals that Mueller will be drawing upon an un-categorizable span of objects. The objects chosen are seemingly random, all only linked by their strange embedded personification. Mueller begins with ‘clock a face’, pointing out how this inanimate object has been given human characteristics. Both this and ‘back’ of a ‘chair’ are common items. Mueller points out that personification has seeped into even the most normal language.
Stanza Two and Three
We fitted our shoes with tongues(…)the bottle a long, slender neck.
Mueller continues to name more examples, touching on ‘shoes with tongues’ and ‘tongues inside bells’. The lexical field of speech, stemming from ‘tongues’, is then further applied to the bells. They are given an ‘emotional language’. Mueller draws upon the music created by bells, personifying it into an ‘emotional language’.
Mueller draws upon very specific examples that go unnoticed in language. One of these, the ‘long, slender neck’ of a bottle emulates the tenderness of the bells’ language. Mueller presents a secret world of objects that have begun to blur with our own. Even everyday objects have a sense of beauty.
Even what was beyond us(…)so we could pass into safety.
The final stanza of the poem moves to a larger scale. Mueller discusses ‘what was beyond us’, moving to the wider world. This both reveals human loneliness has reached huge proportions, but also the innate self-obsession of humanity. Humans ‘recast’ everything ‘in our image’, calling huge parts of nature after themselves. This can be seen in giving the ‘country a heart’, engendering the same type of life in nature that we have ourselves. Even ‘storm[s]’ is named after us, being called after a name sequentially in the alphabet. The center of a storm is the ‘eye’ is another example of personification. Finally, Mueller draws upon the ‘mouth’ of a ‘cave’, suggesting that we have learned to navigate the world around us based on the semantics we understand. Instead of being uncertain in the world, humans have named the world after them, making nature follow their semantic rules.
Similar Poetry to Things
Wilfred Owen’s Exposure is another poem that uses personification heavily. In his poem, he explores the troops of the First World War freezing to death. By personifying the wind and cold, they have something they can fight against. Although Owen’s poem is more brutal in its depiction of personification, both Things and Exposure rely on this technique.