Rukeyser was a poet, playwright, and children’s author well-known for her feminist verse, much of which can be read in Orpheus, her 1949 collection. This specific poem is not one of her more commonly read. But, it does engage with themes that are common to her best-known works. These include women, war, child-bearing, and the future.
Explore Who in One Lifetime
‘Who in One Lifetime’ by Muriel Rukeyser is a powerful, image-filled poem that speaks to the world’s suffering.
The poem begins with the speaker acknowledging what a single person has seen throughout her life. She is experienced and observed war, unbeatable armies, love turned fear, and more. Despite this, the poem ends on a more optimistic note with a woman maintaining her strength, even in defeat and even as the world burns around her.
The poet engages with themes of perseverance and loss in this modern poem. These are seen through the poet’s numerous allusions to contemporary events (most of which are non-specific) and through how she presents the main character, a woman, as standing strong in the face of a burning world.
The poet acknowledges that throughout one life, a person will likely see and experience a great deal of sorrow. But, “she” stands up when she’s been defeated and maintains her strength. This suffering has transformed her into “a childless goddess of fertility” who is filled with the potential to change the world, as long as she can endure suffering as she seeks out a future without war.
Structure and Form
‘Who in One Lifetime’ by Muriel Rukeyser is a two-stanza poem that contains fourteen lines. This untraditional sonnet is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, the format, and the turn at the end, implying that Rukeyser was inspired by the sonnet form while writing.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “lifetime” and “lost” in line one.
- Symbolism: the “childless goddess of fertility” symbolizes all the women who have been transformed by the sorrow they’ve seen around them into symbols of strength and resistance.
- Allusion: against the backdrop of the great depression. Throughout, the poet alludes to the various wars she’s lived through as well as the suffering she’s seen in her everyday life and around the world.
- Anaphora: seen through the repetition of the same word at the beginning of lines. For example, ‘She” begins three lines of this fourteen-line poem.
Who in one lifetime sees all causes lost,
Seeing the integrated never fighting well,
The flesh too vulnerable, the eyes tear-torn.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker, commonly considered to be the poet herself, begins by asking a long question. The question runs for several lines and ends with a period, creating an unbalanced statement that asks the reader to consider the images the poet has presented.
The speaker asks “who, “and only one lifetime experiences all the varieties of sorrow that one could imagine. She suggests that these include healing personally “dismayed and helpless” sing cities fall, experiencing love turn into fear, seeing “Inexorable armies,” or unstoppable armies, and “the falling plane.”
It is unclear exactly what the poet is alluding to here. But, with all these images taken into consideration, she paints a gloomy and doom-filled picture of the world. Rukeyser’s poetry is marked by her interest in social causes and was heavily influenced by the World Wars, the Cold War, and other conflicts until her death in 1980. She famously described her life as “held between wars.”
Here, she speaks to the devastation from war and the ways loss, personal and more widespread, can fill one life. She questions how someone can experience so much pain in one short lifetime.
In the next lines, the poet speaks about how loss and pain can drive one to different kinds of madness. The poet describes how the “she” of the poem has seen a great deal. She includes losses in war, “too vulnerable” flesh, and more. Humanity, she’s suggesting, is vulnerable to a wide variety of pains and sorrows. She’s seen them play out and watched men and women lost to them.
She finds a pre-surrender on all sides:
Treaty before the war, ritual impatience turn
A childless goddess of fertility.
In the second stanza, which includes the final six lines of the sonnet, she describes finding “pre-surrender on all sides.” Here, she may have been considering how people, armies, countries, and more give up before the battle is even fought. While this could be seen as a positive (a way to avoid war), it also alludes to the important battles, such as those for Civil Rights and equal justice, that have to be fought.
She lists out the kinds of “pre-surrender” “She finds” in the next lines. She mentions a “treaty before the war” as well as how she sees the “ ritual impatience turn / The camps of ambush to chambers of imagery.” Among the gloom of the first stanza and the allusions to loss and defeat, the poet inserts some optimistic qualities into the final lines.
The transformation of “camps of ambush” to “chambers of imagery” is an interesting and confusing assertion. Perhaps she’s speaking more broadly about the way that conflicts can become ideological turning points. Or how concepts of the world and social issues are born through conflict or lack thereof.
The poet suggests that although she sees a great deal of sorrow, the subject of this poem continues to believe that the world can become a better and more equal place. Even when defeated, she “stays and hides” that pain while maintaining her hope for a better life.
This leads to the image of the woman, a symbol for the poet (as well as for all those who continue to fight injustice and inequality around the world), standing strong (rather than being metaphorically forced to the ground in defeat) even though she’s seen the world burn, and it continues to burn.
The last lines are filled with a strength that seemed impossible in the initial stanza. This woman has suffered defeat and watched causes she cares about thrown away before they’re ever addressed. But, she stands as “A childless goddess of fertility” in the face of her burning world.
The final image is a perfect example of juxtaposition. The speaker describes the woman as a “goddess of fertility” but also as “childless.” This presents an image of selflessness. She has a power that she uses for the benefit of others rather than to increase her own happiness. It’s an image of a woman who engages in self-sacrifice and likely suffers for the causes she believes in.
It’s unclear who the speaker is. But, the poem alludes to the elements of Rukeyser’s life and work as both a writer and social activist. She is remembered for her writing that engaged with political issues of her contemporary moment.
The theme is perseverance through suffering and loss. The poet presents the reader with a woman who has seen suffering and suffered herself in every way that one can imagine. Despite this, at the end of the poem, she is still standing.
The tone is passionate. The speaker spends the first few lines admitting that the world is filled, and has been filled for a long time, with terrible sights and events. But, it ends on a passionate note with a speaker asserting a woman’s power to stand in the face of a burning world.
The message is that no matter what’s happened in war or within the political realm, it’s still possible to take on the world’s issues. The poet presents a mournful image of the world in the first lines and then ends the poem with an assertion of strength.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should consider reading some other Muriel Rukeyser poems. For example:
- ‘Then I Saw What the Calling Was’ – is a beautiful and complicated poem about life and experience.
- ‘The Poem as Mask’ – is a powerful, feminist poem that speaks to the poet’s experiences in life and with her poetry.