The poem ‘Give’ is divided into five unequal stanzas with the length of these being two, three, three, two, and two lines respectively. The poem has a strong, consistent rhythm with eight beats in every line. Armitage is known to have a good “ear” for consistent rhythm in his poetry. The tone of the poem is somber and causes the reader to view life from the point of view of a homeless person. Rhyme is used just twice in the poem and this is done to emphasize these parts of the poem. The poem uses alliteration which gives it a strong narrative flow.
Summary of Give
Armitage’s poem, ‘Give’, is sad and thought-provoking. He creates a strong narrative voice that can really tug at the heartstrings and some of the comments the narrator makes, whilst pleading for help, effectively could be construed as quite cutting. It is meant to confront the reader with the reality of homelessness and make them realize that they could do more to help. Armitage does this by having the narrator address the reader in the second person, making the reader feel responsible for the actions of the person who finds this man in their doorway, seeking shelter. Living in Yorkshire, in big cities such as Bradford and Leeds Armitage must have been well aware of people who have to endure these sort of ordeals and how they are so often ignored or dismissed.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.
In the first line of the poem, the narrator, who is ostensibly a homeless person, addresses the reader directly and informally. The way the reader is addressed is very personal because of the word dear. Calling people dear, or deary is also an example of a phrase more commonly associated with the north of England. However, this is turned on its head somewhat as in the second line we see that the narrator is causing a scene. Is the “dear” sarcastic then?
Of all the doorways in the world
I’m on the street, under the stars.
In this stanza, we see more of a sarcastic tone as the narrator’s words seem to drip with a sardonic edge. In the final line, he says that he is under the stars, given different circumstances this could be considered quite a positive thing, maybe even romantic. But the harsh reality is that a starry night is usually a homeless person’s worst nightmare, as a cloudless night is (perhaps surprisingly) colder than one that is slightly overcast.
For coppers I can dance or sing.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.
In this stanza, we get an impression of how desperate the homeless person is. An interesting device is used here as the narrator names three precious metals at the start of three consecutive lines. These metals increase in preciousness creating an artificial crescendo of sorts as the homeless man states what he would do to earn the three different metals. The lengths he would go to for each of the three metals increases with the value of each metal. Interestingly there is a vague theme to his suggestions. They all seem like the type of activities one would associate with a circus performer or a magician. Also, note the use of alliteration here, it makes the poem gather pace and gives it a more dramatic feel.
It’s not as if I’m holding out
This stanza of ‘Give, at least for me, is possibly the most interesting in the poem for two reasons. Firstly, the mention of frankincense and myrrh having previously talked about gold in the previous stanza this is an allusion to the three wise men from the bible that bought the baby Jesus three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) with such an obvious reference to the bible what is Armitage trying to do here? Is he hinting that a narrator is a Christian man? Christianity is ostensibly associated with goodness and virtue. Is the suggestion that a homeless person is a virtuous person?
The second reason that this stanza is so impactful is the double-entendre at the end of the second line. The word “change” has an ambiguous meaning here. Does the narrator mean change as in just some spare cash, or does the narrator mean that he is holding out for a change to the system so that he no longer has to live a life of poverty? This a fantastic piece of wordsmanship by Armitage which leaves the reader guessing as to the true meaning of the narrator’s request.
I’m on my knees. I beg of you.
Firstly I’d like to point out that you might choose to associate tea with the people of Yorkshire as they have their own brand (Yorkshire tea) but also Tetley tea was originally a Yorkshire company. Is the inclusion of this a nod to the county of the poet’s upbringing? Possibly, but more likely it is just an example of the dismissive way that people treat the homeless. People sometimes exhibit concerns that if they give money to a homeless person that they will spend it on drugs and alcohol. So it is not uncommon to buy them some food or a drink instead. Clearly, that is what the reader is supposed to have done.
Having the narrator address the reader directly in this way gives the poem an immediacy but also makes the reader feel a certain amount of responsibility for the actions that have been carried out. So when the narrator says “that’s big of you” whilst coming across as a little ungrateful it is also a way of belittling the reader’s effort. In this way Armitage very skilfully has used the words of this poem to highlight an issue but also to highlight how you and I (the reader) could and perhaps should be doing more in order to negate this issue. The parallel between these last two lines is striking the sentences “that’s big of you” and “I beg of you” are so very similar as to be jarring and I think that is very deliberate.
Throughout the poem, the narrator comes across as quite articulate and possibly educated. To see such a person begging for a person to give them more help is quite a powerful piece of imagery.
About Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage is a poet hailing from Yorkshire and holding the prestigious position of being the Oxford Professor of Poetry this is a part-time position but does have a requirement to hold several lectures a year. He is known, not just for his poetry, although he has been a prolific writer of poetry collections, but for his work in writing scripts, novels, and even songs for his band: The Scaremongers. In his earlier years, he worked as a parole officer and this informs a lot of his poetry, especially in his earlier collections. He tends to write about contemporary issues and this poem is no different looking at the problem of homelessness. Armitage’s “northern accent” is prevalent in his poetry which often contains colloquialisms.