M May Swenson

Question by May Swenson

‘Question’ is a poem written in the form of an interrogation. Throughout this piece, May Swenson asks how she could hide her soul after the body dies.

‘Question’ first appears in May Swenson’s poetry collection New & Selected Things Taking Place. Through this poem, Swenson poses a simple yet interesting question regarding her death. She specifically anticipates how she can hide her body after her body expires. For making her point, she uses a few metaphors and goes on describing what is the role of her body. The overall poem is written in the form of a rhetorical question directly posed to herself or the thoughtful readers.


Summary

‘Question’ by May Swenson anticipates the soul’s future wanderings in its bodiless journey.

This poem begins with a reference to three distinct things. The first one is a house, the second one is a horse, and the last one is a hound. All these references are compared to the speaker’s body. She broods where her soul could sleep, or how it could ride, or hunt without the help of the body. In the last few lines, she asks whether she could hide her soul without her bodily house.

You can read the full poem here.

Structure

This poem is written in free-verse. It does not contain a specific rhyme scheme or meter. The overall piece is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker. So, it is an example of a lyric poem. This lyric is written in the form of a rhetorical question. All the lines are joined to make a single question out of it: “What will happen to the soul after the body expires?” Regarding the meter, it irregularly consists of iambic and trochaic feet. There are a few metrical variations as well.

Literary Devices

May Swenson’s ‘Question’ showcases the use of the following literary devices:

  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout this piece. For instance, it can be found in the following lines: “what will I do/ when you are fallen”.
  • Metaphor: In the first few lines, Swenson compares the body to a house, a horse, and a hound metaphorically.
  • Repetition: There is a repetition of the “wh” questions at the beginning of the poem. This device helps the poet to portray her confusion.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in: “my house/ my horse my hound,” “my mount,” “dog is dead,” etc.
  • Rhetorical Question: In this poem, Swenson poses the question at the end of the poem, “how will I hide?”


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-7

Body my house

my horse my hound 

(…)

How will I ride   

What will I hunt

The poem ‘Question’ begins directly with a metaphor. Swenson describes her body as a house that shelters her soul. This concept alludes to a spiritual concept as well. She continues by asking what other things her body is. According to her, it is a horse and at the same time a hound. Hound is a dog breed used for hunting.

In the following lines, the speaker poses a few “wh” questions starting with what, when, where, how, what, and where. Literally, all types of questions starting with the tag are asked here. To summarize, she is speculating about her soul’s future whereabouts after its body’s demise.

It is important to note here, Swenson compares herself to her soul. She personifies it and gives it a voice to speak. It means the speaker of this piece is none other than the poet’s soul.

As the poet compares her body to a house, a horse, and a hound, she talks about losing three specific abilities related to these things. For example, she broods where she will sleep (related to a house), how she will ride (related to a horse), or what she will hunt (related to a hound), without the help of her body.

Lines 8-15

Where can I go

(…)

bright dog is dead

The third stanza starts with an idea tied to a horse. Swenson compares her body to a horse. Mounting a horse, she could go wherever she wished to. Therefore, when the body will expire, she cannot enjoy riding it. Its quick and eager steps are not the only things she is going to miss.

She laments how she will know what is ahead of her in the thicket. Here, the poet reiterates the idea related to a hound. A hound can smell and tell its master whether there is danger or treasure (used in the metaphorical sense) ahead. Without the help of her body, she will lose her sense of smell as well as her ability to find the right direction.

In the last two lines, the poet compares her body to a good and bright dog. According to her, she will feel helpless after the body expires. There is a wordplay in the usage of the word “dog”. It can be reversed. Then, it will also make sense.

Lines 16-21

How will it be

(…)

how will I hide?

The last few lines are short but important in respect to the overall idea of the text. In this section, she imagines the whereabouts of her soul. She speaks through it and asks readers how it would feel lying in the open sky. As she will not have a body, she will like the invisible air that floats from one place to somewhere else.

Again, she misses the shelter of the body that protects her soul. She broods over the fact that her soul will be fenceless, thus vulnerable. Furthermore, she talks about how the wind becomes her visual organs. The soul sees through the bodily eyes. But, now it has none. Therefore, it has to adjust with the wind.

In the last couplet, she asks how she could go from one place to the other direction without her body. When she loses it, she has to depend on the clouds for shifting. Nothing will be in her control.

Lastly, she talks of hiding her soul. It seems as if she is comparing her nudity to that of the soul. Therefore, she will feel ashamed when without her bodily dress.

Historical Context

The poem ‘Question’ was first published in Swenson’s poetry collection New & Selected Things Taking Place. It was published in 1978. The poem was also published in Stephanie Meyer’s science fiction romance novel The Host. May Swenson was an American poet and playwright. According to Harold Bloom, she was one of the most important poets of the 20th century. In May Swenson’s poems, readers can find how poetry is used to create images that are related to the poem’s subject matter. Likewise, in this poem, Swenson uses the images of hoise, horse, and hound to compare them with her body.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Question’ about?

The poem ‘Question’ is about how the poet, May Swenson, can hide her soul after her body’s demise. She talks about losing the abilities that a person enjoys when alive. In the last few lines, she anticipates how her soul will be defenseless and directionless without the assistance of the body.

What does ‘Question’ by May Swenson mean?

The title of the poem deals with the poet’s query concerning how her soul is going to miss its body. Swenson writes the poem in the form of a rhetorical question and triggers the themes of death, and soul and body. The overall poem means what happens to the soul after the body expires.

What is the theme of ‘Question’ by May Swenson?

In this poem, May Swenson taps on the themes of spirituality, body, soul, and senses. The main idea centers on the interconnection between the soul and the body. According to the speaker, the body protects the soul. The soul mounts it in its earthly journey. Swenson also explores the role of the five senses and a few concepts of spirituality.

What three things does Swenson compare her body to or describe it as?

Swenson compares her body with a “house”, “horse”, and “hound” to describe it as a shelter of her soul, a vehicle for directing her soul, and a sentry who is always alert to protect its master respectively.

When was the poem ‘Question’ published?

The poem was first published in 1978 in May Swenson’s collection of poetry New & Selected Things Taking Place.


Similar Poems

Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in May Swenson’s lyric ‘Question’.

You can also read about these incredible poems on death.

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About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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