‘The Three Fates’ by Rosemary Dobson is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, or tercets. Each of these stanzas is formatted similarly, in that (generally) the first line is the longest, and the third line the shortest. Structurally, this poem acts as a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and (slightly ambiguous) end.
The title of this piece, ‘The Three Fates,’ is a reference to three goddesses from Greek mythology Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. The three are responsible for human destiny and are in charge of making sure that those who are meant to die at a specific time, do so.
Summary of The Three Fates
The poem begins with the speaker stating that the main character is on the verge of death. He is in the water of a river and is about to drown. The man calls out to the “sisters” or the three Fates, asking them to save him. They do so, but not without forcing him to pay a terrible price.
When the man emerges from the water his life resumes in reverse. He puts his clothes on backward, returns to his home, and is forced to watch his true love grow younger and younger. His life is falling apart, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He can’t even write poetry from beginning to end and his tears fall before he feels sadness.
In the final lines of the piece, it becomes clear that this is not a one-time occurrence. The man has been granted eternal life, but only for this one specific period of time. When he reaches the end, or beginning, of his life, everything returns to the moment before he fell into the river, and it all begins again.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Three Fates
At the instand of drowning he invoked the three sisters.
From the first line of this piece, the narrative position is clear. The speaker is a semi-omniscient narrator who is able to look into the mind of the main character and understand and describe, his motivations and actions. Additionally, it is important to note that this story is not occurring as the speaker describes it, but is being re-told at a later date.
The narrative picks up at an extremely dramatic moment in the main character’s life when he is on the verge of drowning. It is not clear, at the beginning of the poem, how the man got to this point in his life, but he is in quite a desperate way. He is about to lose consciousness when he cries out for “the three sisters.”
A reader should have been prepared for this invocation, having read the title of the poem, ‘The Three Fates. As described above, the three Sisters, Graces, Fates, or Moirai, are a group of goddesses who are responsible for the deaths fated for humanity.
The main character asked the Graces at that moment to intervene on his behalf. While the reader does not hear what he said, one can assume it took the form of a prayer.
Before the end of the first stanza is even reached, the narrator makes clear to the speaker that what the man has done is a mistake. He should not have tried to interfere with the natural progression of life and death. He should not have cried, “out for / Life everlasting.”
He came up like a corck and back to the river-bank,
Returned to the house.
While the narrator and the reader know at this point that there are more troubles ahead for the man, he is unaware. He has been saved from the waters. He bobbed up to the surface of the water and makes it “back to the river-bank.” It is as if he had never been in any danger at all. He does not express any feelings of relief or thanks, he simply gets on with his life.
The next line is the first clue to what exactly has gone wrong with the speaker’s wish. He seems to be moving in reverse. His life has entered a new period in which he must experience all things backward. This does not just impact his direct experiences, but also the way he sees things around him. The next three stanzas will elaborate on how his life has changed.
He suffered the enormous agonies of passion
Brushing away tears that had not yet fallen.
The third tercet of this piece describes how this change in his life forced him into suffering. The speaker makes sure to note that one particular thing that drove him to “passion” was the way in which he was made to write “poems from the end backwards.” Not only is he physically living in reverse, but his mind seems to be working that way too.
He is also able to predict, at least emotionally, things that are going to happen next. He brushes “away tears that had not fallen,” experiencing the sadness before the actual emotion itself.
Loving her widly as the day regressed towards morning
In the fourth stanza, his true loss is described. He is forced to watch the world go in reverse around him. The speaker introduces the fact that this man loves a woman, someone who is incredibly important to him and whom he is forced to watch grow younger and younger.
He observes the woman he loves “swinging in the garden, growing younger.” He sees her bare-feet and the straw hat she wears on her head. The world is still vibrant and real to him, he sees differently than he used to and knows in his mind that things are not as they should be. He has not been relieved of the prior knowledge of how his life was.
It is clear that the Fates, in an effort to punish the man for his brash invocation, have given him exactly what he wanted with a terrible twist.
And when she was gone and the house and the swing and daylight
The reel unrolling towards the river.
In the fifth stanza, the full breadth of the man’s new terrible life is made clear. He not only has to watch his life go backwards, but experience it on repeat over and over again from the moments before he begins drowning. He is made to see the woman he loves revert to childhood, and watch the end of the “wind and daylight,” and then there is a pause.
In this moment of hesitation, the life he is living is taken back to its new beginning. He is standing on the bank of the river with, “The reel unrolling.” Now the speaker reveals to the reader how the narrator ended up in the river to begin with. He was fishing and was pulled into the water.
It is quite fitting that in a narrative defined by its reversal of time, that the beginning of the story is only revealed at the end.