The Wound

Ruth Stone

‘The Wound’ by Ruth Stone describes with unflinching detail the harmful ways in which some words can inflict lasting hurt.

Ruth Stone

Nationality: American

Ruth Stone was an award winning American poet and author to 13 poetry books.

She received numerous awards and was the Poet Laureate of Vermont from 2007-11.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Words can cut deeply

Speaker: A person who's received unkind words

Emotions Evoked: Confusion, Empathy, Pain

Poetic Form: Couplets

Time Period: 20th Century

Ruth Stone's poem uses both imagery and figurative language to visualize the festering pain inflicted by the words spoken to the speaker. The result is a poem that reveals the emotional scarring that occurs when emotional wounds that persist long after the words themselves have faded.

‘The Wound’ is a poem about the pain and scars inflicted by words. Stone uses an impactful series of images and figurative language to illustrate their effect on the speaker. As shock gives way to recognition, the wound itself starts to evolve from just a hurtful grouping of sounds uttered by an unknown person into something far more tangible.


‘The Wound’ by Ruth Stone describes with raw clarity the evolution of a wound inflicted by words of hostility directed at the speaker.

‘The Wound’ narrates the aftermath of the speaker hearing words of anger that have been spoken to them by an unknown person. The reader never discovers what exactly was said or even the specific context or emotions that caused them to be voiced. All that’s described is the gradual growth of the wound that’s been inflicted upon the speaker. At first, all they register is the shock of hearing such words, and it’s even implied that the words themselves are not unambiguous.

But once they understand the hidden meaning behind those seemingly ordinary words, the pain matures rather rapidly — enlarging from a few sores to the size of a head. But then further mutations occur as it develops eyes and a mouth as well. The poem ends with the speaker explaining that the wound has become somewhat of a friend, though it’s unclear if that relationship is benign or malignant in nature as it keeps the speaker from ever moving on from the pain, serving as a constant reminder of the moment of vitriol that created it.

Structure and Form

‘The Wound’ is composed of eleven couplets written in free verse. There is no rhyme scheme or definite meter. Stone uses both end-stopped lines and enjambment to keep the speaker’s real-time descriptions swift and succinct. The organization of the poem into couplets also helps establish the sequenced nature of their thought process, pacing out their realizations and the evolution of the wound as interconnected but distinct moments and images.

Literary Devices

‘The Wound’ relies on a variety of literary devices that include personification: “something the throat wanted to say” (10); “After a while it becomes an old friend” (21). There is also an example of metaphor: “every syllable becomes a sore” (12); and simile: “The shock comes slowly / as an afterthought” (1-2)

Stone also employs visual imagery: “The body bends to accommodate it” (14); and kinesthetic imagery: “breathing out of lips, / moving toward you in a straight line” (5-6); “they shatter / and rearrange themselves” (7-8).

Detailed Analysis

Couplets 1-2

The shock comes slowly

First you hear the words

‘The Wound’ opens with the speaker describing the latent shock they experience when hearing certain ambiguous words. As its title suggests, the words spoken to the speaker are emotionally scarring. But these first two couplets illustrate the surprise of hearing such hurtful words for the first time and the delay that comes with the realization such things have been said to you.

Couplets 3-4

ordinary, breathing out of lips,

Later they shatter

The speaker lucidly observes that, at first, the hurtful words sound as “ordinary” as any others. Before meaning and context have sunk in, they are understood as just noise being emitted from the vocal cords. They emerge “breathing out of lips, / moving toward you in a straight line” (5-6). That passive piece of kinesthetic imagery explodes in the preceding couplet: the words “shatter / and rearrange themselves” (7-8), a violent depiction that their harsh meaning is beginning to reveal itself to the speaker.

Couplets 5-6

something else hidden in the muscles

Decoded, the message etches itself in acid

In this pair of couplets, it becomes clear that the ambiguous words spoken to the reader might not be explicitly mean. These lines describe the person from whom the words originated, and they insinuate that what’s spoken carries some amount of unspoken vitriol: “something else hidden in the muscles / of the face, something the throat wanted to say” (9-10). But once that message is “decoded” (11), the venomous pain they hold is released. A piece of visceral imagery sears the emotion into the reader’s mind as well as the speaker’s as it “etches itself in acid / so every syllable becomes a sore” (11-12).

Couplets 7-8

The shock blooms into a carbuncle.

A special scarf has to be worn to conceal it.

This next sequence of couplets in ‘The Wound’ continue to describe the pain of enduring the infliction of the words spoken to the speaker. Now that the meaning has been understood, the shock they originally had “blooms into a carbuncle” (13), a kind of abscess swollen and irritated that builds on the grotesque imagery that compares the syllables to sores.

The speaker then describes the way the force of the words forces their body to bend to “accommodate it” (14). Here the speaker details the methods of adapting to the effect of the words upon them, comparing the emotional harm in terms of physical ailments. A “special scarf” is now worn to hide the wound, and the sore or abscess is described as now being the “size of a head” (16). With each passing moment, the insult and hurt only grow more severe, and no remedy can curb it — all the speaker can do is try and obscure it.

Couplets 9-10

The next time you look,

It is difficult to know which to use.

The next two couplets see the wound evolving into something far more surreal — if not slightly horrifying. In a twisted use of personification, the speaker describes how the wound has now “grown two eyes and a mouth” (18). A mutated form is conjured up in the reader’s mind as the wound that was once just a sore has now grown into a tumorous twin. The absurdity is made momentarily frivolous when the speaker remarks being unsure “which to use” (19) and that they’re now seeing double because of the extra-sensory organs.

Couplet 11

After a while it becomes an old friend.

The final couplet of ‘The Wound’ is somewhat ambiguous in terms of the speaker’s relationship with their personified injury. As time goes by, they come to refer to it as an “old friend” (21), a label that could convey everything from cultivated affection to abject familiarity. Either way, it’s clear the speaker has now learned to live with the wound that’s been inflicted.

We’re not even told if they’ve reconciled or remain estranged from the person who spoke the words to them in the first place. Instead, the poet chooses to focus on this new relationship with the wound itself. A poignant metaphor for how one comes to live with the scars of a harbored insult and its constant reminder of the maliciousness that created it.


What is the theme of ‘The Wound?

The poem’s theme revolves around the speaker’s relationship with the wound itself. The poem is ambiguous about whether or not the speaker has truly, healthily come to terms with the wound suffered. All we’re told is that it’s become a permanent and familiar part of their identity and memory. In this way, the poem communicates the lasting effects of even verbal insults.

What is the meaning of ‘The Wound?

The wound serves as an extended metaphor for the pain inflicted by the words spoken to the speaker. The rapidity with which they are transformed from something intangible to a physical part of the speaker underscores their effect.

What are the words spoken to the speaker in ‘The Wound?

Another piece of ambiguity in the poem is the words that are actually said to the reader. A possible reason Stone chose to not include them is best gleaned from the title itself, which asserts a focus on the effect of the words and not the words themselves. That effect on the speaker is made distressingly clear throughout the poem, and its intensity conveys the virulent nature of the words.

Why did Ruth Stone write ‘The Wound?

The poem captures the immediate and long-term effects of a verbal insult, one that Stone no doubt based on a real experience. Who hasn’t endured such a wound? The details might be withheld, but that ambiguity only allows the poem to fit more universally into each reader’s experience.

Similar Poems

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The Wound

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Ruth Stone (poems)

Ruth Stone

This poem by Ruth Stone is made all the more poignant and emotionally acute thanks to her powerful use of imagery and figurative language. Both its intensely personal perspective and succinct use of couplets are representative of the poet's deeply affecting style. All of which inspire a profound sense of empathy from the reader and a reflection on their own experiences.
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20th Century

Stone was born in 1915 and didn't receive much notoriety until later in life. Her collections are defined by their confessional nature, balancing both existential worries alongside the ones of everyday life. As in this poem, she takes a universal moment and somewhat vague incident, stretching it into something universally understood by anyone who has received an unkind word.
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Stone released much of her poetry in the latter half of the 20th century and has become a poet well-regarded for her timeless observations. Her renderings of daily life and the vexations that plague all of humanity make her poetry greatly relatable. As seen in this poem, it is not hard to imagine readers of future decades absorbing the universal insights she offers.
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Identity is a major theme in the poem, as the wound that the speaker describes developing eventually becomes an exceptionally tangible part of her. The way Stone describes this wound is both surreal and somewhat horrifying, as it eventually becomes a kind of twin to the speaker. This is a symbol of the way it's become a part of who she is, even influencing how she acts.
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Recovery is another theme found in Stone's poem, although to call what the speaker goes through a true recovery might seem inaccurate. Instead, the speaker's recovery remains incomplete, and the wound just becomes this daily reminder of the pain that caused it. But it also starts even to influence how she perceives the world and reacts to it. By the end of the poem, it's clear that the speaker is still reckoning with this wound and lacks any closure that might remedy it.
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There are two relationships in this poem: the first is the one between the speaker and the one who inflicts the wound, and the second is the one between the speaker and their wound. The poem offers far more information on the latter, focusing on how the wound essentially becomes an old friend—implying a certain resigned familiarity between the speaker and their painful memory of hearing the words spoken to them.
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Confusion is one of the first emotions mentioned and expressed in the poem. Stone very particularly captures the moments when the speaker first hears the words that wound them, as the insult doesn't register right away. That initial confusion is emphasized in order to underscore the shock that comes with such an experience and makes it all the more relatable to the reader.
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Empathy is another important emotion in the poem that is inspired within the reader while reading Stone's verse. The detailed and laborious description of the evolution of the wound is poignantly universal and viscerally vivid. It's also rooted in an experience that many have faced with varying degrees and as a result, it urges the reader to empathize with the speaker's confusion and pain.
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The main focus of the poem is the evolution of the pain caused by the wound to the speaker. The magic of Stone's poem is her ability to pointedly describe that emotional hurt in a way that is both vague and brutally descriptive. It's a testament to the poem that we never know exactly what was said but are still able to feel the very tangible suffering that's brought on by such an experience.
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Although the reader is never told what exactly is said to the speaker to cause the wound, it is safe to say it might qualify as verbal abuse. Whatever is said to them cuts so deep that the speaker still carries the wound long after the words themselves have faded. The poem serves as a powerful reminder that words can create lasting injuries as well.
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There is a moment of epiphany that occurs near the beginning of the poem. At first, the speaker does not realize that the words spoken to them are intended to be insulting or to cause injury. But when they do it comes as a powerful shock, coming as a revelation of the true thoughts of the person who spoke them.
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It might be too ambiguous to call the emotion behind the words that cause the speaker's wound hateful, but there is evidence that they are spoken to cause intentional harm. Stone's choice of diction and imagery somewhat implies there is some vitriol behind the words themselves. Especially in the way the wound itself is described as this acid that burns them and changes them.
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Life Struggles

One of the hallmarks of Stone's poetry is its focus on life's struggles, especially those experienced every day. The premise of this poem is rather universal: the speaker is told something that hurts them deeply, whether it was intentional or not. Most people have faced a moment like this, and the way the poet lucidly describes it is very moving.
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Stone structures her poem into couplets, splitting up her often brief and short poetic narratives into these succinct two-verse images and impressions. She also employs enjambment, which keeps the poem flowing into each successive stanza. Yet the decision to use couplets punctuates her already hard-hitting lines with even more effect. Leading to a powerfully emotional experience when reading the poem.
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Stylistically this poem might not have all the tenets of the confessional genre in poetry, for one, it is not told in first person. Yet the deeply personal nature and intimacy of the speaker's exploration of such internal pain does fit the genre. Stone's poetry is often confessional from the second-person point of view, which lends it a universal and relatable perspective.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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