The poem is written in a way that is both easy to read and filled with meaning. A surface-level interpretation will result in readers catching most of what the poet wants to convey, but a deeper interpretation provides a great deal more than makes the poem far more pleasurable to read.
Explore Morning Swim
‘Morning Swim’ by Maxine Kumin is a beautiful poem about someone’s morning swim and their connection to God and nature.
The poem starts out with an unknown speaker, who may be the poet herself, describing a night-time scene. There is fog on a lake, making it impossible to decipher the sky from the water. She takes off her robe and swims through the water unclothed. She hums the hymn “Abide with Me” and connects spiritually and physically to the world around her.
Structure and Form
‘Morning Swim’ by Maxine Kumin is a thirteen-stanza poem that is divided into couplets or sets of two lines, These two-line stanzas are mostly written in perfect rhyming pairs, but there are a few end-sounds that are less than perfect, like “floor” and “air” in stanza three. Mostly, the poem follows a simple, flowing pattern that aligns with the peaceful imagery seen throughout the poem. The lines are easy to read and written in a lyrical style that perfectly matches the poet’s intentions with the text.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few different literary devices. These include but are not limited to the following:
- Allusion: the poet references the song “Abide with Me,” a Christian hymn that changes the overall meaning of the poem.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, the lines “Night fog thick as terry cloth
closed me in its fuzzy growth.”
- Sensory Imagery: the use of sense-based images that help readers imagine what it’s like to touch, taste, smell, hear, or see something. For example, “My bones drank water; water fell / through all my doors. I was the well.”
Stanzas One and Two
Into my empty head there come
a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom
I set out, oily and nude
through mist, in chilly solitude.
In the first lines of this lyric poem, the speaker begins by describing how a very specific scene came into their head. They describe seeing a dock, a white or “cotton” beach and themselves walking down the dock “oily and nude.” They’re entirely alone and the peace of this scene comes through very clearly. At the same time, the poet writes that the speaker was experiencing “chilly solitude.” This suggests that it’s cold outside but may also imply that the solitude is less than ideal. They may feel cold in a lonely and isolated way, not only physically cold.
Stanzas Three and Four
There was no line, no roof or floor
closed me in its fuzzy growth
In this scene, the water and the sky are merged together. They were the same cool color, and it was impossible to tell “the water from the air.” This adds to the mystical and dreamlike feeling of the scene. The poet uses a simile in the next lines, saying that the “fog” was “thick as terry cloth.” The material mentioned here is what is normally used to make towels, such as one would expect to see on the beach on any warm day. But, the speaker has already noted that they are unclothed in this scene, creating a nice example of juxtaposition.
Additionally, the poet makes it clear that this scene she is painting takes place at night, something that wasn’t clear in the previous lines. The fog is thick and wraps around the speaker like a towel, one that closes her in with its “fuzzy growth.” This makes it feel as though the longer the speaker stays here, the more trapped she’s going to become.
Stanzas Five and Six
I hung my bathrobe on two pegs.
I took the lake between my legs.
The next lines see the speaker taking off a robe, one that the reader was not aware the speaker was wearing until this line. The speaker takes off her only protection and steps nude into the water. The speaker “took the lake between” their legs. This is a clear sexual image, one that suggests that speaker, like the poet, is a woman.
She allows the lake to surround her body and touch her in sexually intimate ways. She is both “invaded and invader.” She invades the lake as something that does not naturally reside there and is “invaded” by the water between her legs.
The speaker describes going “overhand” or swimming overhanded “on the flat sky.” Here, she connects the previous suggestion that she can’t tell the sky from the sea back into the poem. It’s a dreamlike image, one that is more at home in one’s imagination than in reality. But, at the same time, it’s quite easy to imagine.
Stanzas Eight and Nine
I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.
The speaker feels in tune with the surroundings. The fish are underneath her, living their lives and moving “quick” but “tame,” meaning they pose no threat to her and are not interested in getting any closer to her. They “sang” her name, the speaker adds, suggesting that the fish and the lake are aligned with her body. This is, again, another element of the poem that suggests a dreamlike state.
She hummed as she swam, matching the movements of her body. It was a “two-four-time slow hymn” that matched the scene and the “chilly solitude” she is experiencing there.
Stanzas Ten and Eleven
I hummed “Abide with Me.” The beat
She hummed the song “Abide with Me,” the tenth stanza reveals. It’s a song that was originally composed in the 1860s in Scotland. The melody was originally known as “Eventide” and was composed by William Henry Monk. The song is a hymn, a prayer to God to stay with someone through their life and their death.
The mention of this specific song makes the poem take on a religious undertone immediately. Now, readers are forced to consider the speaker’s interest in God and the fact that she may be dealing with something that she feels she needs God’s support to get through.
She feels the “beat” of the song, which she’s humming, in her feet as they “thrash” in the water. It also came through in the bubble she blew sideways, or slantways, out of her mouth. She’s engaged in the act of swimming while also connecting with God and nature.
Stanzas Twelve and Thirteen
My bones drank water; water fell
in which I sang, “Abide with Me.”
In the next lines, the speaker concludes the poem with a beautiful description of how, in that moments, she was connected physically and spiritually to the water and its source. She was “the well / that fed the lake that met my sea” as she sang. She was connecting to God, God’s creation, and feeling in line with the entire world.
The themes of this lyric poem are nature and God. These two themes align as the speaker connects to the natural world while swimming and humming “Abide with Me,” a well-known Christian hymn.
The message of this poem is that if one wants to connect with God or relieve some of their stress from everyday life, the best way to do it is alone in nature.
The tone is peaceful and contemplative. The speaker is not stressed, hurried, or even overly passionate. She is considering her situation with a peaceful clarity that is admirable.
The meaning of the poem ‘Morning Swim’ is that it is through nature and solitude that one is best able to connect with God. The speaker does it quite easily while swimming alone in a lake at night.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Maxine Kumin poems. For example:
- ‘How It Is’ – recalls the life and work of Anne Sexton, one of the best American poets of the 20th century.
Other related poems include:
- ‘My God! O Let Me Call Thee Mine!’ by Anne Brontë – a prayer in the form of a poem that calls to God.
- ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’ by John Donne – a poem that is written from the perspective of a dying man and is addressed to God.