One of the most incredible things about poetry — and about art in general — is its capacity to bring alive emotions and expressions that most might consider too complicated or strong to convey in simple words. In ‘The Other One’, Robert Service addresses one such emotion, one of the strongest ones a person can feel: grief… and more than grief, the grief a parent feels for a lost child. This is the kind of feeling that is impossible to relate to or understand by writing “I know how you feel,” or anything similar — so Service endeavors to bring the idea alive in a unique way through his poetry, hoping to connect with his readers who have felt this true and ultimate pain. The full poem can be read here.
The Other One Analysis
“Gather around me, children dear;
The wind is high and the night is cold;
Come, for you’re all so tired of play,
We’ll read till it’s time to go to bed.”
‘The Other One’ features atmosphere as being a very important aspect of itself. Service uses the syllable count of each line to bounce off of the one following it to create a predictable flow for the piece that is meant to be comforting. In the context of this first verse, this makes sense, as a speaker invites a group of children to read a story together before their bedtime. There is a strong theme of escapism here, as the speaker introduces fantasy elements into their story. There is also mention of the cold outside, suggesting a kind of darkness to escape from. Service uses light alliteration (“lovely ladies and dragons dread”) and dated language (“bygone day,” “ages old”) to draw the reader into the escapist fantasy, in the same way, the speaker tries to excite the children for the tale to come.
So they all are glad, and they nestle in,
And squat on the rough old nursery rug,
And they cup their chins in their hands and stare
At the heart of the flame with thoughtful eyes.
The second verse largely serves to describe the comfort and security that exists within the narrator’s home. Service’s vivid descriptions of the nursery, the fire, the way the children rest their chins in their hands, and the way their conversations die down in anticipation are all here to set the setting and atmosphere for the reader — emphasizing once more how cozy and safe the children are. The fire is a repeated image in this section of the poem, used to symbolize warmth and comfort, and also as a source of inspiration and life, as seen in the final line, where it is described as having a heart, that reflects in the thoughtful eyes of the children.
And then, as I read by the ruddy glow
And the little ones sit entranced and still . . .
Oh, children dear, don’t look at me —
I’m reading now for — the Other One.
The third verse of ‘The Other One’ introduces the titular character, though in a strange way. That the other, the young son of the speaker, is not present until they begin to read the story is an ominous bit of foreshadowing, but there is a distinct sense of happiness in the poem’s language as he is introduced. The repetition of “I know,” to convey assuredness, and the knowledge that he will “always” be listening is indicative of strong faith, and strong comfort as well. The comforts and happiness from the previous two verses are transferred to the Other One, as the speaker all but ignores the rest of the children, and begins reading only to their son.
For the firelight glints in his golden hair,
And his wondering eyes are fixed on my face,
Oh, children, kiss me and go to bed:
Leave me to think of the Other One.
The fourth verse of ‘The Other One’, like its preceding stanzas, is based largely on feeling and atmosphere. Service uses words with positive and joyful connotations, such as “firelight,” “golden,” “easy,” “shining,” and “wondering.” The son of the speaker is described in simple details — his eyes and hair are what is primarily described, though the verse focuses more on the speaker’s reaction to this — they’re unable to continue reading the story and send the (undoubtedly disappointed!) children off to bed early, to contemplate their son alone. The closeness of the details, including touching lips to head and the book blurring, helps the reader to understand the intimacy of the encounter, without Service needed to waste words explaining it in literal terms.
Of the One who will never grow up at all,
Who will always be just a child at play,
A heart of love that’s without a stain,
Always and always my own, my own.
The fifth verse is the one that confirms for the reader that ‘The Other One’ is a story about a child who died very young, and about the way that child’s parent handles grief and loss. They do this, we see here, by thinking of the child as being frozen at the age they died, imagining their child as being a child forever, pure and innocent, and never going away. In essence, they imagine their child as being the exact opposite of gone — omnipresent, comforting, and loving always. Once again, Service uses light alliteration, repetition, and close details to convey the true intimacy of the moment between parent and lost child. The most crucial moment appears at the very end of the verse, where Service’s repetition is at its most poignant, repeating the words “always” and “my own,” and making clear that these two concepts are the most important aspects of the child to his parent — he will always be there, and he will always be their son.
Yet a thought shines out from the dark of pain,
And it gives me hope to be reconciled:
We may come to the Gates of Eternal Light,
Where only children may enter in.~
In the deepest part of their sorrow, the narrator contemplates how the goodness and purity of their child resonate strongly with their own faith, and they form an idea in their head: that a person who dies as a child dies pure and good, and would rise into Heaven for certain. The parent sees their son as having died without ever having sinned, and so must surely be an angel in Heaven. This thought brings them to hope in their darkest moment and focuses on the theme of ‘The Other One’ into one that is comforting and hopeful. Rather than being a story about a grieving parent who sees their child everywhere they go, it becomes the story of acceptance and understanding, and of finding comfort in faith. The references to whiteness and light are the brightest images used so far, in line with the most hopeful aspect of the poem.
So, gentle mothers, don’t ever grieve
Because you have lost, but kiss the rod;
Wistful for love, oh, yours, just yours,
Dearest of all, the Other One.
The following verse, which concludes ‘The Other One’, repeats many of the themes and ideas that were touched upon and hinted at earlier in the work. It reads as though Robert Service is choosing to break the fourth wall and address his reader directly, hoping to be a voice of comfort in a dark time. This is not typically an easy thing to do well — especially with poetry — but the strength of his message and tone allows it to work.