Robert Penn Warren’s poem ‘Tell Me a Story’ contains two sections. The first section hints at the past when the speaker was young and heard a bird’s call that was migrating to the north. In the second part, he asks the audience to tell him a story about distant objects.
At a first-hand reading, it seems there is a vague connection between the two stanzas. When readers dive deeper into the lines, they start to understand the connection between them. To clarify, the first part sets the mood. And the following part discovers the speaker’s mental reflection and his wish to listen to a story.
This poem is divided into two parts. In the first part, the speaker shares one of his childhood memories. One day, he was in his native place in Kentucky. There he stood by a road in utter darkness. The sky was dark due to the absence of the moon as well as the stars. He only heard the sound of geese migrating northwards.
In the next part, the speaker asks readers to tell him a story. Before they can start, he defines what should be the theme of the tale. It must encompass the theme of distances. In modernity, there is nothing left to be talked about. That’s why he tells them to share a story that can rejuvenate his weary mind. It should be a story of delight, not filled with the ravages of modern time.
You can read the full poem here.
The title of this poem, ‘Tell Me a Story’ deals with the humane aspects of a tale that can touch others. It presents the universal nature of the story-form that can please people from every walks of life. For making this story suitable for the generation, he provides some guidelines to the writers regarding the theme of the work.
The text reveals paints a picture of modernism. In the beginning, there is a looking back at the speaker’s past. He shares his childhood memory that is filled with darkness, only a mild sound can be heard. The sound is of the migrating birds which are not staying in the place. In this way, the first part sets the mood of the overall piece.
While in the next part, readers can understand the full meaning of the text. As he has already mentioned what is lacking in the present times, there is no need to look back to that void past. A person has to keep a positive spirit always burning inside his or her heart. That’s why he requests others to create a story that not only delights him but also others.
This poem is separated into two sections, marked alphabetically. There are short stanzas only consisting of a few lines assisted with one-liner codas. The shortness of the poem also hints at the theme of the poem that specifically deals with the futility of modern times.
The overall poem is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker. So, it is an example of a lyric. The lyrical speaker, representing Warren, speaks on this theme throughout this piece. Besides, it seems there is a person present around him, listening to him describing his past. For this reason, the form of the poem is similar to that of a dramatic monologue.
There is not any specific rhyme scheme. But, some lines contain slant rhyming. For example, the first three lines end with a similar sound. It somehow creates a rhyming effect. Whatsoever, this poem does not have a set metrical pattern. It consists of both the iambic and trochaic meter.
The first literary device that comes to attention is enjambment. Warren uses this device for internally connecting the lines. For example, this device is used in the first three lines.
In the second line, readers can find a metaphor in “first dark.” It’s an implicit reference to the evening. In the third line, “great geese” contains a repetition of the “g” sound. It’s an example of alliteration. This line also contains onomatopoeia and it can be found in the usage of the word, “hoot”.
The line, “It was the season before the elderberry blooms,” contains a periphrasis. Through this line, the poet refers to winter.
Section [ A ]
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
Robert Warren’s poem, ‘Tell Me a Story’ has a story-like format. In the first part, readers can see how the poet uses the introductory scheme of a tale. The first two words, “Long ago” sound like the speaker tells his life’s story to another person. This phrase reveals that the poetic persona is not talking about the present moment. He is referencing the past, possibly the 1960s.
Then the speaker was a boy and he lived in Kentucky. One day, he was standing by a dirty road. The “dirt road” symbolizes the lack of sophistication in the modern landscape. Besides, the ambiance was dark as the time was evening. To refer to the time, Warren uses a metaphor, “first dark.” This phrase is a bit tricky to understand. It can be a hint to the dark phases of history.
There he heard the “great geese” hooting while migrating northward. In this way, the first three lines present sensual imagery to depict the landscape. The lack of beauty, light, and even sound is a reference to a time when the modern world was going through several problems. So, the poet thought it is fit to use those words that sufficiently describe what was happening around him.
To heighten this bleak and hopeless mood, he adds another visual imagery. According to the description, there was no moon. Even the stars were sparse. Therefore, the speaker could not see the birds flying. He had to visualize their direction of flight by the sound they made.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
The sound was passing northward.
In the last few lines of this section, the lyrical voice throws light on how he felt on that day. According to him, he was unaware of his state of mind. But, from the description, it is clear that he was in a state of utter hopelessness. The ambiance around him projected how the modern world was advancing to darkness. The lack of compassion and humanity was the reason behind such a pessimistic state.
In the next line, the speaker talks about the season. He says it was the season before the elderberry flower blooms. What does this mean? The elderberry flowers bloom after the winter season. So, he is talking about winter. But, the reference is not straightforward. This line presents a contrast. Besides, it intensifies the pessimistic mood.
As it was the time of winter, the birds were migrating to comparably warmer regions. They were flying to the north for either breeding or food. He could only hear their fading sound as they were leaving the place. The flight of the birds is a symbolic representation of the gradual deterioration of humanity in the modern world.
Section [ B ]
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The second part of ‘Tell Me a Story’ begins directly. There is a request to the listener to tell him a story. But why does he say so? The next line clarifies it.
According to him, in this century, people are forgetting the value of compassion, humanity, and universal brotherhood. He refers to the time as a “moment of mania.” This metaphor hints at the war-like situation in the world, growing capitalism, lack of humane values, and above all the gradual evaporation of aestheticism in art. For these reasons, he wants to listen to a story. By repeating the first line, Warren highlights the importance of art in the modern world.
In the fourth line, he tells the readers what should be the theme of the story. It has to tap on “great distances, and starlight.” By reading this line, it seems that the speaker is distancing himself from modern times. He wants to discover distant things. Besides, there should be a starlight to show him the way.
The name of the story will be Time,
Tell me a story of deep delight.
In the last three lines, he talks about the title of the story. Ironically, it is “Time”. The speaker wants to hear a story that encompasses the nature of time. It seems he wants to listen to a story that throws light on the modern world. This story describes how wars and materialism transformed the world. In the modern world, everything is controlled by money and muscle power. So, the story has to touch on these issues.
A word of caution, there should not be any reference to its name. This line brings crude humor inside the text. It seems as if “Time” is a creature that he fears the most. The poet employs personification for presenting this concept as a living being. He fears it the most as its impact on the modern world is worrisome. In modern times, the way people indulged in barbaric activities, sold humanity to materialistic pleasure, and destroyed natural beauty, pains the poet the most.
In the last, he makes it very clear that he wants to hear a “story of deep delight.” This line refers to the aesthetic aspects of art. Besides, he somehow wants to escape from this world. A story presenting delights that touch the heart deeply can help the poet to stop thinking about the things happening around him.
The poem, ‘Tell Me a Story’ was published in Robert Penn Warren’s poetry collection, “Audubon: A Vision”. It was published in 1969. It was the time when the world was witnessing the ravages of the cold war. Not only that, during that time capitalism was growing bigger gradually. People forgetting about the basic human values started to think about getting materialistic pleasure. In this situation, a naturalist like the speaker of Audubon poems feels helpless and extremely morose. Through the poem, ‘Tell Me a Story’ he reveals what was happening in the modern world and how he was feeling at that time. His wish is only to hear a story that can help him to escape this materialistic world.
Here is a list of a few poems that tap on the themes present in Robert Penn Warren’s poem, ‘Tell Me a Story’.
- Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot – It’s one of the best-known poems of T.S. Eliot. This poem similarly explores the nature of time. It presents the contrast between the experience of modern man and spirituality. Explore more T.S. Eliot poetry.
- Homework by Allen Ginsberg – This humorous piece deals with the traumatic events in the modern world and how the speaker tries to wash the world clean. Read more poems from Allen Ginsberg.
- Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy – It’s one of the best poems of Carol Ann Duffy. This poem beautifully presents the importance of prayer in the modern age. Explore more Carol Ann Duffy poems.
- The Shield of Achilles by W.H. Auden – This poem creates an amalgamation of the classical world with the modern world for depicting the futility of the latter. It’s one of the best-loved poems of W.H. Auden. Read more poems by Auden.