‘In the Time of Plague’ by N. Scott Momaday is a reflective and hopeful poem that explores the experiences, emotions, and possibilities during a time of widespread disease. The poem delves into the themes of confinement, caution, fear, resilience, and the potential for personal and societal growth. It urges individuals to seek hidden goodness amidst the darkness, overcome challenges, and embrace the opportunity for renewal, ultimately inspiring hope for a better future.
Explore In the Time of Plague
‘In the Time of Plague‘ by N. Scott Momaday is a poem that reflects on the collective experience of living through a plague or crisis.
The speaker describes the cautiousness and reserve that pervade their interactions with neighbors as fear and suspicion hang in the air. Both the speaker and their neighbors keep their distance, silently acknowledging the need for caution.
The weight of custom and rote consolation offers some solace in the face of unspoken fears and thoughts of death. Death itself is personified as wearing a mask, a symbol of the pervasive threat posed by the plague. However, amidst the darkness of fear, the speaker suggests that there may be a silver lining, a hidden good waiting to be discovered.
This hidden good, the poem argues, lies in the opportunity presented by the misfortune of the plague. It is a chance for humanity to rise above its past shortcomings and strive for a better future. The poem urges readers to embrace this opportunity for renewal and to envision a world where goodness and morality prevail over pestilence, war, and poverty.
The speaker emphasizes that overcoming these challenges requires a collective commitment. They invite readers to imagine and work towards realizing their potential for goodness and moral improvement. By doing so, they believe that humanity can preserve its sacred purpose and shape its essential nature.
The poem ends with a call to action, urging readers to take up the task of securing a better future and proving themselves worthy of their highest destiny. It highlights the importance of this endeavor not only for the present generation but also for future generations to come. The poem’s underlying message is one of hope, resilience, and the transformative power of human determination in the face of adversity.
Structure and Form
‘In the Time of Plague‘ by N. Scott Momaday is structured as a single stanza composed of thirty-two lines. The poem follows a free verse form, lacking a consistent rhyme scheme or meter. This allows the poet to convey the thoughts and emotions associated with living through a plague in a fluid and organic manner. The absence of strict poetic constraints reflects the uncertainty and unpredictability of the situation the speaker finds themselves in.
The poem’s structure creates a sense of continuity, as each line flows seamlessly into the next. This uninterrupted flow mirrors the interconnectedness of the speaker’s experiences and the ongoing nature of the plague itself. By using a single stanza, the poet reinforces the theme of collective experience and shared humanity, suggesting that the struggles faced during the time of the plague are universal.
The lack of stanza breaks also contributes to the poem’s sense of tension and unease. Without pauses or divisions, the reader is drawn into a relentless and unbroken narrative that reflects the pervasive anxiety and fear surrounding the plague. The absence of white space on the page reinforces the poem’s thematic exploration of confinement and the sense of being trapped.
Furthermore, the poem’s length, with its thirty-two lines, contributes to the overall impact and intensity of the message. It allows the poet to explore various facets of the human experience during a plague, from caution and suspicion to the potential for renewal and resilience. The length of the poem also mirrors the scope of the challenges faced by humanity and the complexity of the solutions proposed.
In ‘In the Time of Plague‘ by N. Scott Momaday, several themes emerge, each shedding light on different aspects of the human experience during a crisis. One prominent theme is the pervasive fear and caution that permeate society. The speaker describes how neighbors interact with reserve and suspicion, keeping their distance in a “mute accord.” This theme is exemplified by the line, “We are cautious. Our neighbors smile, but in their eyes there is reserve and suspicion.”
Another theme is the transformative power of adversity. Momaday suggests that within the darkness of fear and misfortune, there lies the hidden potential for growth and renewal. The poem states, “But consider, there may well be good in our misfortune if we can find it.” This theme emphasizes the resilience and capacity for positive change within individuals and communities.
Connected to this theme is the concept of hope and the belief in a better future. The poem argues that despite the challenges of pestilence, war, and poverty, humanity has the ability to prevail and improve. The speaker asserts, “We can be better than we have ever been… We can overcome pestilence, war and poverty.” This theme encourages readers to embrace the opportunity for progress and work towards realizing a brighter tomorrow.
The theme of collective responsibility also emerges. The poem calls upon individuals to recognize their essential nature and strive toward goodness and morality. The speaker emphasizes the importance of a unified effort, stating, “We are committed to this end for our own sake and for the sake of those who will come after us.” This theme highlights the interconnectedness of humanity and the shared responsibility to shape a better world.
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
N. Scott Momaday employs various poetic techniques and figurative language to convey his message effectively. Some of these include:
- Personification: One notable technique is personification, whereby he attributes human qualities to abstract concepts. For instance, the poem states, “Death too wears a mask,” personifying death and emphasizing its looming presence during the plague.
- Symbolism: Momaday also utilizes symbolism to enhance the poem’s meaning. The image of neighbors “smiling” but having “reserve and suspicion in their eyes” symbolizes the unease and lack of trust within the community. This symbolic portrayal captures the atmosphere of caution and wariness prevalent during times of crisis.
- Metaphor: The poem employs metaphor to express the hidden potential for growth and renewal. The line, “But discover it and see that it is hope / And more; it is the gift of opportunity,” compares the hidden good to hope and presents it as a valuable gift amidst the darkness of fear. This metaphorical language enriches the poem’s thematic exploration of finding positivity within adversity.
- Repetition: The use of repetition emphasizes key ideas and creates a rhythmic flow. The repetition of the phrase “We can” throughout the poem, such as “We can be better… We can improve… We can overcome,” reinforces the message of human agency and determination. This technique adds emphasis and reinforces the poem’s optimistic tone.
- Imagery: Momaday also employs lucid imagery to generate the emotions and experiences associated with living through a plague. For instance, the phrase “the weight of custom” and “the tender of rote consolation” paint a picture of the societal expectations and rituals that offer solace amidst fear and uncertainty. Such imagery enhances the reader’s engagement with the poem’s themes and messages.
We keep indoors.
When we dare to venture out
We are cautious. Our neighbors
Smile, but in their eyes there is
Reserve and suspicion.
They keep their distance,
As we do ours, in mute accord.
Much of our fear is unspoken,
For there is at last the weight of custom,
The tender of rote consolation.
In the opening lines of ‘In the Time of Plague‘ by N. Scott Momaday, the poet sets the stage for contemplation of the human experience during a plague. The first line, “We keep indoors,” immediately establishes a sense of confinement and isolation, reflecting the physical and emotional restrictions imposed by the plague. This line conveys a collective experience, suggesting that the poem’s message encompasses a broader community.
The subsequent line, “When we dare to venture out, we are cautious,” highlights the apprehension and wariness that accompanies stepping outside. The phrase “dare to venture out” implies the perceived risks and dangers associated with leaving the safety of one’s dwelling. This caution is reinforced by the following lines, “Our neighbors smile, but in their eyes there is reserve and suspicion.”
Here, Momaday captures the underlying sense of mistrust and unease that exists between individuals, even amidst seemingly friendly interactions. The contrasting emotions of smiling and suspicion reveal the complexity of human interactions during times of crisis.
The line “They keep their distance, as we do ours, in mute accord” emphasizes the shared understanding among individuals to maintain a physical distance from one another. The use of “mute accord” suggests an unspoken agreement, indicating a collective recognition of the need for caution and self-preservation.
The phrase “Much of our fear is unspoken” unveils the unexpressed anxieties that permeate the community. It implies a sense of restraint or suppression, possibly due to the overwhelming nature of the fear itself. Momaday suggests that this fear is not easily articulated or communicated, further emphasizing its profound impact on individuals.
The following line, “For there is at last the weight of custom, the tender of rote consolation,” delves into the role of tradition and customary practices as a source of solace. It suggests that in the face of fear, individuals rely on established routines and rituals for comfort and reassurance. The use of the words “weight” and “tender” suggests a heavy reliance on these customs, indicating their significance in providing a sense of stability and emotional support.
We endure thoughts of demise
And measure the distance of death.
We have the rare chance to prevail,
To pose a resolution for world renewal.
In lines 11-20 of ‘In the Time of Plague,’ N. Scott Momaday delves into existential contemplation and the potential for finding hope amidst the darkness of fear and misfortune. The poet begins by acknowledging the enduring thoughts of demise that plague individuals during a time of crisis. The phrase “We endure thoughts of demise” encapsulates the collective experience of contemplating mortality, emphasizing the weight of existential concerns that accompany living through a plague.
The line “And measure the distance of death” introduces a striking metaphorical image. Here, Momaday presents death as a tangible entity that can be measured, indicating the omnipresence and constant reminder of mortality during the plague. This imagery intensifies the theme of mortality and adds a visceral quality to the poem.
The statement “Death too wears a mask” carries a dual meaning. On one hand, it alludes to the physical masks worn as protective measures during a pandemic. However, it also metaphorically suggests that death conceals its true nature or intentions, further emphasizing the uncertainty and fear associated with it.
Momaday introduces a shift in tone with the line, “But consider, there may well be good in our misfortune if we can find it.” Here, he encourages readers to seek out positive aspects amidst adversity. The phrase “hidden in the darkness of our fear” suggests that amidst the overwhelming fear, there exists a potential for discovering something beneficial. This notion of hidden goodness within despair conveys a glimmer of hope and resilience.
The subsequent lines further develop this theme of hope and opportunity. The phrase “discover it and see that it is hope and more” emphasizes the transformative power of finding the hidden good. Momaday presents this discovery as a gift, describing it as “the gift of opportunity.” This implies that the misfortune of the plague offers a rare chance for individuals and the world at large to overcome and renew themselves.
The final line of this segment, “We have the rare chance to prevail, to pose a resolution for world renewal,” echoes the idea of seizing the opportunity for positive change. It underscores the potential for individuals to rise above the challenges and collectively contribute to a better future.
We can be better than we have ever been.
We can improve the human condition.
And we can secure it. Let us take up the task, and
Let us be worthy of our best destiny.
In lines 21-32 of ‘In the Time of Plague,’ N. Scott Momaday delivers a powerful and uplifting message that centers around the potential for human improvement, resilience, and the pursuit of a better future. The poet asserts that humanity has the capacity to transcend its current state and strive for greatness.
Momaday begins by declaring, “We can be better than we have ever been.” This statement challenges the status quo and encourages individuals to push beyond their current limitations. It suggests that the experience of the plague can serve as a catalyst for personal and collective growth.
The subsequent line, “We can improve the human condition,” broadens the scope of the poem’s message. It speaks to the transformative power of human agency and emphasizes the potential for positive change on a societal level. Momaday highlights the importance of envisioning a better world and then actively working towards its realization.
The lines “We can imagine, then strive to realize, our potential for goodness and morality” emphasizes the significance of imagination and the active pursuit of ethical behavior. This statement encourages individuals to tap into their creative faculties and strive for moral excellence, thereby contributing to the betterment of humanity.
The poem continues with the assertion that humans can overcome the challenges of “pestilence, war, and poverty.” These words represent a range of societal afflictions, symbolizing the adversity and hardships that plague humanity. Momaday asserts that through determination and perseverance, these challenges can be conquered.
The phrase “We can preserve our sacred purpose” suggests a profound connection between humanity and a higher calling. It implies a responsibility to uphold values and ideals that transcend individual desires and contribute to the greater good.
The subsequent lines emphasize self-discovery and the importance of defining one’s own identity. Momaday asserts that individuals have the agency to determine “who we are in our essential nature and who we can be.” This speaks to the transformative power of introspection and self-reflection in shaping personal growth and development.
The poem concludes with a call to action, urging individuals to be committed to the pursuit of a better future. Momaday expresses the desire to be worthy of the legacy that will be inherited by future generations. The final lines emphasize the urgency of the task at hand and the need for individuals to rise to their highest potential.
The poem has its title because it specifically addresses the experiences, emotions, and challenges faced by individuals during a time of widespread disease and uncertainty, capturing the essence of that period.
The poem elicits feelings of apprehension, caution, resilience, hope, and the potential for personal and societal growth amidst adversity. It navigates between the darkness of fear and the possibility of finding hidden goodness and opportunity.
The speaker is not explicitly identified, but they represent a collective voice of individuals enduring the plague and grappling with its effects. The speaker’s perspective reflects the shared experiences, emotions, and aspirations of a community facing the challenges of a pandemic.
The tone is a combination of somberness, introspection, and optimism. While acknowledging the weight of fear and the seriousness of the situation, there is an underlying tone of resilience and determination, encouraging individuals to rise above adversity and strive for a better future.
The mood of the poem is a blend of apprehension, introspection, hope, and a sense of collective purpose. It captures the complexities of emotions experienced during a time of crisis, with moments of unease and uncertainty balanced by the underlying belief in the potential for positive change and renewal.
Those who enjoyed this poem by N. Scott Momaday may also take time and explore the following other poems by different poets:
- ‘A Thunderstorm In Town’ by Thomas Hardy – presents two contrasting scenes: the dry interior of a carriage and the havoc of a thunderstorm outside. But the powerful imagery and symbolism mainly illustrate a memory of lovelorn regret by the speaker.
- ‘A Long Journey’ by Musaemura Zimunya – is based on the changes that came to Rhodesia, a small country in southern Africa, after British colonial rule. The speaker explores the positive changes and the negative.
- ‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz – presents a description of the Warsaw Ghetto from the eyes of a “poor Christian.