The Three Fates by Rosemary Dobson

The Three Fates’ by Rosemary Dobson is a five stanza poem which 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. You can read the full poem here.


Summary of The Three Fates

The Three Fates’ by Rosemary Dobson describes the life of a man who is forced to live through the same events, in reverse, for eternity. 

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 backwards, 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 become 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. 


Analysis of The Three Fates

Stanza One 

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 retold 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 tired to interfere with the natural progression of life and death. He should not have cried, “out for / Life everlasting.” 


Stanza Two 

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 backwards. 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. 


Stanza Three 

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. 


Stanza Four

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 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. 


Stanza Five 

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. 

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  • Avatar Maungo M says:

    Do you perhaps see any symbolism within the poem or is it pretty straight forward without any deeper meaning to the aspects?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I mean it’s relative to the point, I guess the symbolism of the three sisters is a nod to Greek mythology.

  • Avatar Colin Fraser says:

    *I meant “reel of film”. Also, his appalling punishment would be disproportionate if he had merely been reluctant to die: it is his attempted suicide which, by usurping the Fates’ right to determine when he dies, has made them so vengeful

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      once again this is a very astute observation and it definetly seems to fit the words of the poem.

  • Avatar Colin Fraser says:

    No he was NOT ” fishing and pulled into the water.” – one does not normally remove one’s clothes and fold them in order to catch a fish; nor would he have been pulled into the water by it, unless perhaps he had accidentally hooked a hippopotamus; the “reel” which has misled you refers either to a real of film being played in reverse or, more plausibly, the spindle which the Fates unwind to determine human lifespan.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I’m appalled you would attack my favourite past time of naked hippo fishing. Who are you to judge! haha. I think you may be onto something there. I think more likely the latter as you suggest.

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