R. L. Sharpe’s ‘A Bag of Tools’ speaks on themes of life, death, equality, and individual choice. The poem is universally applicable, addressing topics that apply to all of humankind, no matter where or when one was born.
The poem begins with the speaker asking the listener, a generalized representative of all human beings, if they also think it’s strange that “clowns” and “kings” all have the same life to live. No matter who you are or the circumstances of your birth, the days of your life, there is a finite amount of time. This period gives everyone the opportunity to shape a “mass” and use their “bag of tools” to craft a life for themselves.
You can read the full poem here.
‘A Bag of Tools’ by R. L. Sharpe is a two stanza poem that’s divided into sets of seven lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABCBDEE FGFHIJI. This inconsistent pattern scatters the lines with a variety of end line sounds. There are also examples of half-rhyme in the text. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, the lines one, two, and three and the repetition of the “s” consonant sound.
Sharpe makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘A Bag of Tools’ as well. These include alliteration, enjambment, juxtaposition, anaphora, and repetition. The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. For example, the word “each” in the second stanza. Anaphora, another kind of repetition, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. The word “A” begins three lines in the second stanza and “And” begins two in the first stanza and one in the second.
Juxtaposition is also present in the text. This technique occurs when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to emphasize a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. For example, in the first stanza, Sharpe levels “princes and kings” and “clowns and capers”. They are put on the same level.
Alliteration is a very common technique. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “clowns” and “capers” as well as “stumbling” and “steppingstone”.
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. This technique can be found throughout the two stanzas of ‘A Bag of Tools’. For example, the transitions between lines one and two as well as five and six.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Isn’t it strange
That princes and kings,
Like you and me
Are builders for eternity?
In the first stanza of ‘A Bag of Tools,’ the speaker begins with an enjambed line that sets the mood for the rest of the poem. There is something “strange,” yet completely normal, in the commonalities between all people on earth. Sharpe uses juxtaposition to place “princes and kings” alongside “clowns” and “common people”.
There is a skillful use of alliteration in the third line when she depicts “clowns,” or foolish people that “caper” or run quickly and without intent from place to place. A listener, who represents all people on earth is addressed in the sixth line. The speaker questions the listener, asking them, isn’t “strange” that all of humankind is part of a group they refer to as “builders for eternity”.
Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass,
A stumbling block
Or a stepping stone.
The role of “builder” is expanded in the next lines of ‘A Bag of Tools’. Everyone has a “bag of tools,” a symbol for the agency each person has in life to create a world for themselves. Every person has this set of tools and a “shapeless mass” that they can mold. There is also a “book of rules” that accompany each life. These are the rules of society and those by which each person must shape their mass.
All this shaping must be done before “life is flown,” or, before one has to confront death and their time runs out. The “mass” can be for the person shaping it a “stumbling block / Or a stepping stone”. This is the difficulty and danger inherent in moving through life and making decisions. There is always the chance that one’s choices turn out poorly, the tools don’t work as one predicted or the results fail to satisfy the builder.