‘Dirty Face’ by Shel Silverstein is a sixteen line poem that is divided up into one couplet and one set of fourteen lines. The rhyme scheme is very consistent throughout. It follows a pattern of AB CCDDEEFF and so on, until the conclusion. The first two lines are different than the following fourteen due to the fact that they come from a different speaker. This person is a parent and they are addressing a child about their dirty face. The child’s response is the bulk of the poem. It is interesting to note that Silverstein chose to leave the parent’s lines unrhymed but give the child’s words such a consistent pattern.
This kind of constant rhyme scheme is common within Silverstein’s work, mostly due to the fact that the majority of his poems are directed towards a younger audience. A child reading ‘Dirty Face’ will be more interested in lines that rhyme as they feel more pleasing, and sound more interesting as they are read aloud.
The poem begins with the first speaker, a parent, asking their child why their face is so dirty. The next fourteen lines are the child’s rhymed and constantly metered response. They go through a variety of fantasies, adventures, probable and improbable reasons why their face is so dirty.
These range from exploring dark caves and silver mines to eating blackberries right off the bush. The poem concludes with the child speaker reminding the parent that it doesn’t matter what they’ve been doing, they’ve been having more fun than the parent.
You can read the full poem here.
Rhythm and Repetition
In regards to rhythm, Silverstein makes use of the same kind of separation between the parent and the child. The parent’s lines do not contain the same number of syllables, but the child’s all contain eleven syllables per line. In combination with the rhyme scheme and the lack of rhyme, the child’s speech is elevated over the parent’s. This is reinforced in the child’s final lines in which they state that they had more fun today than the parent has ever had. They see themselves as being better, freer, and happier, therefore their speech is allowed to rhyme.
The most prominent technique used by Silverstein in this text is that of repetition. It is seen in the beginning, middle, and ends of the lines. Anaphora in particular is clearly used throughout the poem. This is when a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, every other line of the bulk of ‘Dirty Face’ begins with either “I got it from” or “And”.
Analysis of Dirty Face
Where did you get such a dirty face,My darling dirty-faced child?
The first two lines of ‘Dirty Face’ are different than those which follow. The speaker is a parent who is speaking to their child, it is unclear if the child is a boy or a girl. They have only one question for the child and that is to do with the kid’s “dirty face.” The parent is not chastising the child, just asking how they came to be so dirty. They use the endearment, “ My darling” when speaking, making it clear they are not angry.
As was stated above in the introduction, these are the only two lines of the poem that do not rhyme. They stand apart, spatially on the page, but also in form from the following fourteen. This draws a stark distinction between the parent’s words and the child’s.
I got it from crawling along in the dirt(…)And digging for clams in the yard with my nose.
In the first four lines of the second stanza of ‘Dirty Face’ the speaker changes. Now, the child is answering the parent. They begin by saying that their face is so dirty because they were,
[…] crawling along in the dirt
And biting two buttons off Jeremy’s shirt.
These lines are meant to be amusing to a child and evocative to a parent or adult reading them. A child will hear of this speaker’s exploits and be excited by them, and perhaps jealous. A parent on the other hand might recoil at the thought of their own child doing the same, or be struck with memories from the past when they too were happy to crawl in the dirt.
The next two lines operate in the same way. They also bring the child’s imaginative qualities into the narrative. They state that they were “digging for clams the yard.” But rather than using their hands, they used their “nose.” This is meant to be an amusing image. Especially when one considers the likelihood that there are clams in the yard.
I got it from peeking into a dark cave(…)And signing my name in cement with my chin.
In the next four lines of ‘Dirty Face’ the speaker’s sense of imagination grows. They tell of the games they played, pretending they were on an adventure like a “Navajo brave” exploring caves. The child explains that they are dirty because they were painting their own face in order to make the fantasy more realistic. The next two lines are quite funny and describe how the child was,
playing with coal in the bin
And signing [their] name in cement with [their] chin.
If the child was doing these things, which seems unlikely, then it is obvious how they could’ve gotten their face so dirty. But, the practicality of these adventures is not the point of the poem. It is the sheer pleasure of being a child and feeling like one is able to do anything they choose. Then, if these adventures are not physically accessible, being able to invent them.
A reader should take note of the consonance utilized by Silverstein in the last line of this section. This is the repetition of a consonant sound within multiple words. In this case, it is the “n” sound.
I got it from rolling around on the rug(…)And from having more fun than you’ve had in years.
In the next couplet, the speaker gives another explanation for the source of their “dirty face.” They were rolling on the rug and hugging “the horrible dog.”The child continues on to explain that their dirty face came from spending time in a “lost silver mine” as well as eating “blackberries right off the vine.”
The twelfth line gives the final physical explanation for the child’s dirty face. It came from “ice cream and wrestling and tears.” These three last things the child says they were doing, as well as many of the previous, are interesting in part due to their contrast. Ice cream, wrestling, and crying are not generally associated.
The last line is something of a rebuke of the parent. The child tells them that the real reason they are dirty is that they’ve been having “more fun than you’ve had in years.” With the addition of this final line, it should make one question the authenticity of all of the previous statements the child made. It doesn’t matter what they were doing, they were having the kind of fun an adult can’t have.