Margaret Atwood’s style of poetry has consistently been one that makes the reader think. And while that is a fairly simplistic statement to describe a long and rich history of evocative poetry, it’s undeniable that Atwood’s poetry is often thought-provoking and well-thought-out. In the case of The Moment, Atwood creates a moment through her words that challenges the nature of nature, of ownership, and of human society. And her words do create a single moment, describing a fleeting feeling from various perspectives in a full and powerful interpretation of the instant.
The Moment Analysis
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
As is typical of Atwood’s style, the poem, which you can read in full here, reads more as a sentence than a verse. The grammar of the poem is exactly correct for a typical sentence structure, and as a result there is no particular rhyme to the story. The lines are chosen with evident care, however, divided in such a way as to create halting, suspenseful storytelling that is most evident when the poem is read aloud.
The story itself is fairly self-explanatory so far; the narrator describes a person who has travelled far and worked hard to create something they can call their own. They can say that this is an island in their country; that they own a half-acre of land on this square mile, where they have built a house that includes a room in which they stand, and that it all belongs to them in some way, shape, or form. The house and a large piece of the land likely belongs to them legally, while the larger land masses can be called theirs in the same way they might describe their homeland as being “their” country. And there is a moment, after all of the work has been finished, in which this person is standing in the room that they created and feels that all of their hard work has been worth it so they can say that this is something they can call their own.
is the same moment when the trees unloose
and you can’t breathe.
Throughout the second stanza, the nature that surrounds this person is personified into an entity that is withdrawing. The trees, once such a comforting sight, are withdrawing their affections; the birds, once clear friends and confidents, now seem to speak a foreign language; the cliffs, once a source of stability, now unpredictable and collapsing; and the air that once sustained life for this person is now fleeing. None of this is literal, but rather is an exaggeration of reality. When a person first walks onto land that has not been walked on before, nature is all there is. When the subject of the poem first stepped upon “their” land, they could take comfort from trees and birds and cliffs. But they immediately sought to distance themselves; the moment they declared themselves the owner of any of it, it all went away. This person does not own trees or birds or cliffs, any more than the trees, birds, and cliffs want to be owned. Now that the house is constructed and “ownership” established, they have withdrawn from nature, and nature has withdrawn from them.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
It was always the other way round.
As far as the natural world is concerned, ownership is meaningless. The third stanza bridges the first two by giving the reader the perspective of the personified natural world. It describes the process of claiming ownership — “climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming” — as meaningless. The trees don’t belong to people because the person planted a flag and shouted something out, and the trees will never belong to that person. According to the whispers of nature, humans are owned by the world — the world is not owned by humans at all, but that’s not what they believe.
The Moment makes a number of references to the European style of claiming ownership. During the fifteenth to twentieth centuries, the process of owning land was often established through a number of things — the primary two of which were “flag in the ground” ownership, which worked as a kind of “first come, first served” system (where the first to come jabs the flag of their country in the ground they wish to claim), and there was the simple principle that stated that land belong to anyone who regularly farmed and used it (which is also how land ownership could conveniently be denied to nomadic Indigenous groups who lived on those same lands). The poem’s reference to “a long voyage,” as well as Atwood’s Canadian heritage, suggest that the story is in reference to the original settlement of Canada by British and French colonizers. For those settlers who initially entered Canada, land belonged to whoever reached it first (the claims of Indigenous peoples notwithstanding); the Hudson’s Bay Company, for example, held millions of dollars in land on the basis of foreign grants and of their agents claiming ownership, which eventually was sold to the Canadian government, much to the anger of the people who lived on the land being sold. The Moment challenges this basis, suggesting that the very idea of land as of nature as a thing that can be owned and sold is wrong. The final stanza describes the human as being a “visitor,” and historically, this is an accurate term. In a similar sense, there are a lot of species of animal on the planet that have come and gone as “visitors,” in a sense, and so there is no reason not to regard humans in the same way.
Throughout the course of history, ownership over land has been a strong and important topic, but The Moment challenges that topic in a thought-provoking way. In a sense, it gives the “other side” of the story by personifying the natural world that has observed countless species attempt to create a home within its embrace, as The Moment so well describes it.