‘Misery and Splendor’ by Robert Hass speaks on the themes of time, the inescapability of change, and the nature of relationships.
The poem uses imagery to take the reader through a series of scenes depicting two lovers, entwined in an embrace. They struggle with their own closeness while time moves unstoppably around them. Hass makes use of techniques such as accumulation to build tension and depict the bafflement of the couple’s “will”.
Structure of Misery and Splendor
‘Misery and Splendor’ by Robert Hass is a twenty-four line poem that is contained within one block of text. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, nor do they conform to a metrical pattern. Hass does make use of several poetic techniques within the text though. These include alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “buries” and “body” in line six and “wobbles wildly” in line ten.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. There is a great example in the third line of the poem. It reads: “before or after dinner. But they are in this other room”. Or, another example, lines eleven and twelve. They read: “and accelerates: weeks, months, years. The light in the room / does not change, so it is plain what is happening”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem. For instance, the transition between lines one and two, as well as that between fifteen and sixteen.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Misery and Splendor
Summoned by conscious recollection, she
would be smiling, they might be in a kitchen talking,
embracing. He holds her as tightly
as he can, she buries herself in his body.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by describing the mental process of a woman. She was “Summoned by conscious recollection”. This period of recollection is connected to a process that plays itself out over and over again within the text of the poem. The speaker describes how “she” and “he,” two sides of a couple, would spend their time together.
They might, at one moment, be in “a kitchen talking”. It is in the third line that the first mention of time and the progression of time plays a part in the crafting of their interactions. It could be “before or after dinner”.
But, the third line also adds, they are not in the kitchen now. They are in “this other room”. It is not named, rather it is described as if it has a place outside of time and language. It has a window with “many small panes” and a couch.
It is there on the couch that a reader can find them. They are intertwined in one another’s arms. She tries to bury herself in his body. It is clear that their focus is on one another. The reader is something of an eavesdropper, allowed in, via the speaker, to spy on the couple and their emotional, physical, and mental entanglement.
Morning, maybe it is evening, light
does not change, so it is plain what is happening.
In the next six lines of ‘Misery and Splendor’, time is emphasized through the accumulation of words like “morning,” “evening,” “light,” “day,” and “night”. The speaker is unaware or doesn’t care to discover, what time of day it is. Through this language, the poet is attempting to show how time passes, but for this couple, its progression doesn’t matter. The light comes and leaves and it means little. The process accelerates and “weeks, months, years” pass.
But, they conclude this section, “The light in the room / does not change”. It is “plain,” or easy to see, what is happening there.
They are trying to become one creature,
their mouths dry, then wet, then dry.
The speaker describes how the two, twined together, are trying to “become one creature”. They are trying to escape their own identities, lives, and fears and become one, but there is something that stands in the way. “Something will not have it”. That something appears to be connected to fear. They are afraid that their “sharp cries” will allow them to grow used to the idea of separation. That is what they fear most of all. So, they remain silent “rub[bing] against each other”.
They feel themselves at the center of a powerful
and baffled will. They feel
or huddled against the gate of a garden—
to which they can’t admit they can never be admitted.
In the last lines of ‘Misery and Splendor,’ the speaker adds omnisciently, that the couple “feel themselves at the centre of a powerful / and baffled will”. They are experiencing the intricacies of humanity, the powers of love, loss, and the unstoppable progression of time.
There is something, a metaphorical gate, keeping them from being “admitted” to the other side. They can’t and won’t ever get in. Their will is “baffled,” but they aren’t quite able to confront that fact.