The poem is rich with imagery, demonstrating how beautiful even the most mundane images can be when used effectively. The text is filled with feelings of nostalgia and alludes to the transformative powers of a brief period of time. The speaker leaves the water, returning to his own world, as the girl does. Neither can go back to that moment again in ‘Belle Isle, 1949.’
Explore Belle Isle, 1949
‘Belle Isle, 1949’ by Philip Levine is a beautifully written poem about an evening from the speaker’s youth.
The speaker starts out this poem by describing how he went to the Detroit River with a girl he didn’t know from his high school. Together they took off their clothes and jumped into the water where they were “baptized.” This suggests a major change in their lives. Perhaps they’re aging out of high school/entering into the adult world. Either way, the moments in the river felt transformative to the speaker. He knew at the time that he wouldn’t be back there again.
He also makes sure to note throughout the poem the reality of the setting. The water and beach were dirty, and there were factories all around them.
The poem ends with the speaker noting that they put their clothes back on and returned to the world they came from.
You can read the full poem here.
We stripped in the first warm spring night
and ran down into the Detroit River
to baptize ourselves in the brine
I’d never seen before, and the cries
our breath made caught at the same time
that was this world, the girl breaking
In the first lines of ‘Belle Isle, 1949’ the speaker begins by thrusting the reader right into the middle of the action. He’s looking back on a “warm spring night” when he and someone else went to the Detroit River. They climbed into the dirty water, filled with, he realizes, “dead fish” and “car parts.”
These descriptive and beautiful lines are taken from a brief moment in the speaker’s life. He was at the river with a girl, someone from his high school who he had “never seen before.” This adds to the fleeting nature of this experience. He knew as it was happening that it would never occur again. This is likely why the details are so powerfully relayed. He was taking everything in as clearly as he could.
The two swam through the water, rose through its layers “of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere / that was this world.” That world that he was inhabiting at that time was one that he would never return to. This is a sentiment that’s repeated later in the poem.
the surface after me and swimming out
on the starless waters towards the lights
but a perfect calm dark as far
as there was sight, and then a light
The girl swam ahead of him, and he looked around at the “old stove factory” and other less-than-aesthetic sights. It grew darker, and the lights faded, creating a “perfect calm dark.” There was excitement in these moments as well as peace. He had the presence of mind to appreciate this when he was there and still can when relaying the details.
and another riding low out ahead
to bring us home, ore boats maybe, or smokers
and dressing side by side in silence
to go back where we came from.
From where they were in the water, they could see lights that the speaker says may have been there “to bring us home” or maybe “smokers / walking alone.” Everything is one thing and another. Although they are not as beautiful and sparkling as one might figure in the lines of a poem, the world is filled with possibilities.
They climbed back onto the beach, well aware of the dangers that might be in the sand, and got dressed in silence “to go back t where we came from.” The poem ends with this simple line, letting the reader know that this period in the speaker’s life is over and that there’s no way he can go back there. The past is sealed, especially moments like this that are so individual. ~
Structure and Form
‘Belle Isle, 1949’ by Philip Levine is a twenty-five-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They range in length and syllable number. Despite this, readers who analyze the text closely are going to be able to find some examples of half-rhyme created through the use of assonance and consonance.
Throughout ‘Belle Isle, 1949,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines twelve and thirteen as well as lines nineteen and twenty.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “baptize” and “brine” in line three and “was” and “world” in line eleven.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, “melted snow. I remember going under” and “of Jefferson Ave. and the stacks.”
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses a particularly interesting description. It should trigger the reader’s senses and help them imagine the scene in detail. For example, “on the cold, and rising through the layers / of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere.”
The tone is reflective and a bit nostalgic. The speaker spends the lines recalling a series of moments from his past. He can’t go back there, and this fact permeates everything he says.
The speaker is a man who is looking back on moments from his youth, specifically when he was a high schooler. He is distant enough from this time in his life that he can appreciate it while not being so distant that it no longer seems important.
The purpose is to emphasize the importance of small, fleeting moments in one’s life. If one can live them, know they will never come again, and still take joy and wonder from them, one is living the best possible way.
The theme is that youthful moments of joy are only going to occur once. You can’t go back into the past and live a special moment again. Therefore, one should appreciate them to the utmost while initially experiencing them.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Belle Isle, 1949’ should also consider reading some other Philip Levine poems. For example:
- ‘He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do’ – is a poem about talking and silence. It describes a speaker’s friend who enjoys reflective moments of quiet.
Other related poems include:
- ‘My Lost Youth’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – a lyric meditating upon the poet’s youthful days. It was a glorious time of his life when he was as fresh as dew and as energetic as sea tides.
- ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen – serves as a dual rejection: both of the brutality of war, and of religion.