Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg

Richard Hugo

‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ by Victor Hugo is a 20th century poem about nostalgia and living on past glory.


Richard Hugo

Nationality: American

Richard Hugo was born in 1923 in the Pacific Northwest.

He studied at the University of Washington along with Theodore Roethke.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: The difficulty in trying to bring back to life Philipsburg, a town that once buzzed with life.

Themes: Aging, Journey

Speaker: Likely Richard Hugo

Emotions Evoked: Abandonment, Depression

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ is a nostalgic poem that focuses on Philipsburg, how lively it used to be, and how dreary it has become.

Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg‘ is a 1973 dramatic monologue about how dreary Philipsburg has become, years after the 1907 boom. It talks about finding degrees of gray in an otherwise boring life. The speaker remembers how bubbly Philipsburg used to be; as he writes, it is a shadow of its old self. Richard Hugo was an American poet. He was seen as a regionalist—however, this masterpiece of his talks about a city in Montana.


‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg‘ talks about how Philipsburg is now old and bereft of life or adventure.

It is a blank verse that places Philipsburg of the 1907 boom and Philipsburg of now. With a nostalgic voice, Philipsburg is described as once full of life. However, now it has a dearth of adventure; virtually every interesting thing is gone, and people who want more are leaving. The poem talks about how now, only churches, magnesium, and scorn are left in Philipsburg. What more? Even the church bells are ignored.

The first stanza introduces that feeling of nostalgia, and this is maintained until the last stanza. There, an old man, very much aware of reality, has someone try to convince him that he is only imagining things and that Philipsburg is still what it used to be.

Structure and Form

Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg‘ is a free verse poem divided into four stanzas. These stanzas do not have a simple rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem’s language is simple, and the tone is sad and evokes a feeling of nostalgia.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The nostalgia in the speaker’s voice can be felt, and the past glory of Philipsburg is referred to here. Casually walking by on a Sunday, one might stop to take stock of the old town, what used to be hotels, bars that stood, the drivers trying all they can to move faster in time, but likely failing. Only churches remain, with the 70-year-old jail and one prisoner that has no idea what he did wrong.

The speaker is referring to what Philipsburg used to be and what it is now by placing them aside. We can see the stark difference. The city buzzed during the 1907 boom. The town has degenerated into a shadow of itself.

Stanza Two

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

The speaker continues to lament that all Philipsburg has to give is rage and hate. That is the business they know. The hatred seems to be targeted at things that are not boring, injecting boredom and trying to kill them. There is hatred reserved for the adventurous ones who dare to want more and leave- for instance, the girls who leave for the butte every year.

Try what they may; it would take more than one or two interesting sites to give the dying town a facelift. Again, the speaker returns to remembering what the town was like during the boom in 1907. Now, virtually all the good things are figments of the speaker’s imagination.

Stanza Three

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kisss
till burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Reality hits again, jarring the speaker’s audience. The questions keep coming- this is all real, right? The town is really a shadow of itself. They can’t keep living in the past, savoring what used to be. It is time to face things as they are—an environment where the church bell rings and no one answers, where they have to give magnesium and a generous level of scorn.

Hopefully, that would help the town develop and return to its more interesting old self. The questions in this verse are rhetorical.

Stanza Four

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
no matter where it’s mined, is silver

and the girl who serves your food

is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

Even though the questions are rhetorical, the speaker urges his audience to say ‘no’, for the collective answer to the two questions in the last six lines of the stanza before this one is ‘no’. A man who used to be there when Philipsburg was a bubbly town, 70 now, lips collapsing when he laughs, was just 20 when the seventy-year-old jail was built. He has come to terms with the fact that his passing might be close.

The speaker says the one he is addressing would tell him he is mistaken; and try to paint the picture that the place is not as bad as they think it is, for he has money made of silver and mined from wherever, cars that run, and the girl that serves his food is slender with a red hair that lights the wall.

Hopefully, that should be enough to distract the old man from his realities until they hit again. But first, he would probably see his imagination as running wild. He would think he isn’t going anywhere any time soon until reality comes knocking, even harder this time.


What inspired Richard Hugo to write ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg?’

The dullness that enveloped Philipsburg, making it different from what it was during the 1907 boom, inspired Richard Hugo’s ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.’ The speaker laments that Philipsburg has become a shadow of itself. He points out how people keep leaving because the place is now bereft of any source of adventure.

What type of poem is ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg?’

Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ is a dramatic monologue. It is written as a speech by an individual character addressing everyone and no one in particular. The speaker asks questions severally, questions whose answers are obvious. This is what makes it so dramatic.

What is the 1907 reference in Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg about?

The 1907 reference in ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg‘ refers to the 1907 mining boom in Philipsburg. Then, the mining business was booming, and Philipsburg was bubbling with activities. However, years later, the town has become a shadow of itself, and people are leaving it behind in search of adventure.

What theme does ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ explore?

Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ explores the theme of nostalgia. Vivid pictures are painted of what Philipsburg used to be and what it has become. The sadness elicited by nostalgia can be sensed in the persona’s voice.

Similar Poetry

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Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg

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Richard Hugo (poems)

Richard Hugo

Richard Hugo was an American poet. He was said to be a regionalist. His poem 'Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg' places Philipsburg of 1907 alongside what it is now. It is a poem that evokes the feeling of nostalgia and is a very good piece from him. However, he has many poems that rank above this one.
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20th Century

Richard Hugo's poem was published years after the 1907 boom to highlight the abandonment now faced by a city that once buzzed with life. With this, the poem is a good representation of its times.
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Richard Hugo was an American poet. He was said to be a regionalist. 'Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg' is about Philipsburg, a city in the U.S. The poem is a good addition to American Literature. However, so many other poems in this category rank above it.
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In Richard Hugo's 'Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,' we get to know how Philipsburg has aged and how it is no longer what it used to be. The themes of age and journey are explored in the poem. We see how Philipsburg goes from a lively place to aging and losing its ambiance.
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This poem by Richard Hugo explores the theme of journey. Philipsburg has come a long way. Over the years, it transitioned from a city buzzing with life to a dreary place everyone with a sense of adventure wants to get away from. The poem handles this theme well.
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Philipsburg went from being a lovely town to being an abandoned place. The difference is clear, and people (especially the ones with a sense of adventure) are leaving in their numbers because of this. The poem does a very good job of evoking this emotion with the use of imagery, which provides a vivid picture of the situation. Richard Hugo's ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ does a fair job in this aspect.
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Richard Hugo's ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ evokes the emotion of depression. Philipsburg, a town that used to be so full of life during the 1907 boom, has become a shadow of itself, and this saddens the persona very much. The poem gives off a mood of sadness, and this can be sensed from the speaker's tone. Even though the poem evokes this emotion, there are poems that are better at doing this.
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As the saying goes, change is the only constant thing, and change happened to Philipsburg. Richard Hugo's ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ paints a vivid picture of how Philipsburg went from a bubbly town to a very dry and dreary place. Change came for Philipsburg, and made it lose its ambiance, so much so that the reader can sense the nostalgia in the persona's voice. The poem handles this topic well.
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Richard Hugo's ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ deals with loss because what has happened to Philipsburg is a loss to everyone that knew the place when it place was lively, and now it has become enveloped by a lack of activities and dullness. Even though this poem handles this topic well, there are so many other poems about loss that rank above it.
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In Richard Hugo's 'Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,' the speaker remembers what Philipsburg used to be. He also remembers the jail that is now 70, and nostalgia can be sensed in his tone because those are pleasant memories. The poem handles this topic well. However, there are poems that perform much better in this aspect.
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This poem has nostalgia as its central topic. Knowing how lively Philipsburg used to be during the 1907 boom, and seeing what it has degenerated into, breaks the heart. The good times are remembered, and it saddens the speaker so much. This is the main topic of the poem, and it handles this well.
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Free Verse

This is a free verse poem that does not conform to a single rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem is divided into four stanzas that explore the city of Philipsburg, how it has changed, and what readers might expect from the city in the future.
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The reader can sense the nostalgia in the speaker's voice as he laments; it saddens him the dreariness that Philipsburg has become. 'Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg' by Richard Hugo is a poem that has the speaker lamenting about Philipsburg and all it has lost. The poem is not the best of poems on lamentation.
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Chioma Julie Poetry Expert
Chioma is an accomplished poetry expert with a background in Mass Communication. Utilizing her additional experience as an English Literature Teacher, she has honed her analytical skills to provide in-depth and insightful interpretations of poetic works.

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