‘You Begin’ by Margaret Atwood is a six stanza poem that is separated in uneven sets of lines. The first and fourth stanzas have nine lines, the second has six, the third has five and the fifth and sixth both have three each.
Although there is not a single pattern of rhyme in ‘You Begin’ there are scattered instances of rhyme, repetition and moments of internal rhyme, as well as half or slant rhyme. The first, full rhyme, can be seen sporadically throughout the poem. Such as between the ending of lines seven and nine in the first stanza, with “O” and “yellow” and line one of the second stanza with “window”. “That” in the second stanza and “flat” in the first is another example.
There is a clear focus on repetition in the poem. This makes the text seem even more like the speaker was talking to a young person. It also helps the reader circle back around again to the central element the speaker addresses, the hand and its importance.
Atwood makes use of very informal, casual diction in this piece. This makes it clear that this is a simple (but important) monologue directed at someone the speaker is comfortable with. Because of the simple language, and the inferred movements (seen through the use and reuse of “this is”) it is obvious that the speaker is teaching the listener something. It is easy to imagine her pointing at the “hand,” the “eye” and at the picture of the “fish, blue and flat”.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of You Begin
The poem begins with the speaker telling a young listener that they “begin this way”. The first thing a person has is their “hand” and then their “eye”. These things represent the powers of agency and determination. She also points to a “fish, blue and flat / on the paper”.
In the second stanza she goes through a few colours, and then reveals that in fact there are far more colours in the world that we can ever know. Eventually, she returns to the importance of the hand and the word itself as floating “above your hand / like a small cloud over a lake”. It hovers, and it “anchors / your hand to this table”. In the last three lines the speaker refers to the earth, her child’s life and her own as having a beginning and an ending. All of it can be seen here, in “your hand”.
Analysis of You Begin
In the first stanza of ‘You Begin’ the speaker is clearly directing her words at a specific person. She makes use of the title, “You begin…” to tell who is later determined to be a young, childish listener, that they “begin this way”. The first thing that a person has is their “hand” and then their “eye”. These things represent the powers of agency and determination. With eyes and hands one handles and views the world. But the speaker doesn’t go into that much detail. She is talking to a someone who has a very basic view of life, and therefore she must use simplistic language.
The images that Atwood’s speaker paints in this poem are lovely. She points to a “fish, blue and flat / on the paper”. Now it is clear that she and her listener, perhaps her child, are looking at a book with images in it. She compares the shape of the fish on the page to the shape of “an eye”. The speaker is drawing connections between her child and the larger world. There are a number of other examples of interconnectivity that she makes sure to inform her child of.
The next being, “your mouth” as an “O” much like “a moon”. She tells her child that maybe their mouth is an “O” or maybe it is a “moon”. It can be whatever they want it to be. The stanza ends with a short sentence, “This is yellow”. This is a good example of enjambment as it is unclear what exactly she’s referring to. A reader has to go down to the next stanza to see if it is revealed or if perhaps she was relating the color to something in the first stanza, or to nothing at all.
The second stanza of ‘You Begin’ reveals that the speaker is going to move through a few colours. There is “green” outside their window because, as she states, “it is summer”. The simple cause and effect the speaker sets out reminds the reader again that whoever the intended listener is, is quite young.
In front of the speaker and her child is a box of nine crayons. To give the child some perspective and help them see what the world is, she tell them that the world is colourful, but not more so than this set of colours in front of them. Giving the child the colours of the world is a way of empowering this young person. They have the ability to draw with the materials the world is made from.
The third stanza is the shortest so far with only five lines. The speaker continues to describe the world and how grand it is. She tells her child that it is “fuller / and more difficult to learn” than she has said. In fact, the nine colours don’t really do it justice. Things are not as black and white as she suggested in the first place.
This is represented by the child as they smudge the “red and then / the orange”. The world is a combination of things, it “burns” the speaker says.
Atwood’s speaker reveals that the exercise the two have been engaging in has been an effort to help the child learn new worlds. Just as she revealed the world to be more complicated than previously suggested, she also tells the child that they “will learn that there are more / words” in the world that the few they have discussed today. She tells the child that despite their best efforts, they are never going to be able to learn all the words.
In the next lines of ‘You Begin’ the speaker returns to the first, and what seems to be the most important, word taught at the beginning of the poem. It is “hand”. The ability, agency and importance of the appendage is imbued in the next sections as the speaker describes, through sensorial metaphors and similes, what the hand is.
She speaks of the word itself as floating “above your hand / like a small cloud over a lake”. It hovers, and it “anchors / your hand to this table”. These two phrases speak to the abilities that one has within their own hands, and the limits. One’s hands can bring them high, but they will never be able to escape the humanity of their own existence.
The last phrase is a metaphor that compares the child’s hand to “a warm stone”. It represents something to the speaker herself. The child’s hand is a central place of comfort “between two words”.
The last two stanzas of ‘You Begin’ are tercets, meaning they each contain three lines. They continue to focus on hands and how central they are to our lives and our ability to understand the world. The speaker reaches out and acknowledges her child’s hands, her own, and the world around them. The breadth of their existences is contained within, and reflected by the world.
She describes the world as a place that is endless and indescribable as it is “not flat and has more colours / than we can see”. The mystery, beauty and allure of this statement would be quite impactful to an interested child.
In the last three lines of ‘You Begin’ the speaker refers to the earth, her child’s life and her own as having a beginning and an ending. All of it can be seen here, in “your hand”. Even if the child can’t understand this fully at the time, she knows that over and over again they will “come back to” the simple principles of life.