‘Before We Leave’ by Stephen Dunn undulates between a literal and metaphorical journey. The poet is giving the reader tips on how to survive the journey – using the extended metaphor of an actual hike to represent the path to happiness.
Dunn’s ‘Before We Leave’ explores a journey, it is at once a metaphorical journey to happiness and also a real one, that you must ‘wear hiking boots for’. The poet begins by listing things that we must bring on the journey, building immersion into the metaphor before actually launching into it. This journey, it is revealed, is to self-satisfaction, happiness, and avoiding the ‘abyss’ of depression. It is not an easy journey to take, with Dunn’s narrative weaving in and out of metaphor and the literal, the confusion adding a layer to the journey itself.
Stephen Dunn splits ‘Before We Leave’ into three stanzas, measuring 16, 11, and 23 lines each. The poem is written in free verse, without a clear rhyme scheme. Dunn’s decision to write in free verse lends itself to the subject matter, with the idea of a journey being represented through the changing structure with different lengths mirroring the different stages of the journey. The poem has a strong balance of different punctuation forms, again representing the different elements of the journey and how circumstances can change along the way.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and structural ideas are of huge importance within the poem, with Dunn employing free verse and changing punctuation in order to represent the idea of a journey. Therefore, Dunn’s use of caesura is incredibly important, with the starting and stopping of the meter within ‘Before We Leave’ acting as a mechanism to represent the undulating direction of the journey they are taking.
Moreover, the use of enjambment by Dunn gives a similar impact. The sudden increase of speed the poem gains when enjambment is used again reflects the idea that the journey is not straight forward, things changing along the way.
Analysis of Before We Leave
Just so it’s clear—
no whining on the journey.
If you whine, you’ll get stuck
Hold hands and tremble together
if you must but remember
each of you is alone.
Dunn begins the poem with a statement, ‘Just so it’s clear-‘, the harsh hyphen ensuring there is a break right at the start of the poem. This use of punctuation is almost as if Dunn is questioning the reader if they are sure they want to continue. The poem, and the represented movement towards happiness, is not a light undertaking, with Dunn warning us that there is much to consider on his metaphorical journey. The clarity of the opening statement is a direct contrast to much of the later moments in the poem, with the changing and confusing style used in stanzas two and three being juxtaposed here.
The idea of a ‘journey’ is introduced directly within the second stanza. Again, Dunn is ensuring that the reader knows exactly what they are getting into, he is clear and direct within this first stanza.
Dunn then moves to name things and ‘unwritten laws’ that must be followed when embarking on the journey. He cleverly mixes things that would be needed on an actual journey, such as ‘hiking boots’, with those which are going to be needed on the metaphorical journey to happiness, such as ‘endurance’ and not ‘whining’. This balance of literal items, told through clear instructions, ‘pack food’, creates a sense that Dunn is instructing us merely on what to pack. This opening stanza sets up the rest of the poem, we are about to take a journey. Indeed, ‘Before We Leave’, we must remember all the things he tells us, preparing for what is to come.
In this journey, the journey to happiness, ‘there will be times when you’ll be afraid’. In these moments of uncertainty, Dunn wills us to ‘hold hands’, the physical connection and companionship of ‘trembl[ing] together’, allowing us to feel safe, even when we are not. Dunn preaches that companionship and other people are vital on the road to happiness, this is a journey that is indeed experienced ‘alone’, but is not necessarily taken ‘alone’.
Where are we going?
It’s not an issue of here or there.
And if you ever feel you can’t
Trudge on. In the higher regions,
where the footing is unsure,
to trudge is to survive.
It is within this stanza that the ‘journey’ becomes more metaphorical. ‘Where are we going?’, asks Dunn. Yet he knows that it ‘is not an issue of here or there’, what we are moving towards is not a place, but rather a state of mind and therefore cannot be physically located. In moments that things seem dark, we must keep going, believe in ourselves, and ‘take another step’. Dunn suggests that even if we ‘Trudge’, the verb implying great effort, it will be enough – as long as we keep moving. Indeed, ‘to trudge’, to continue even after everything tells you to stop, ‘is to survive.’.
Dunn suggests we learn to appreciate the process, the ‘middle ground’ in the journey that balanced ‘misery and joy’. We will arrive at happiness eventually if we keep going. Take time to remember why we are embarking on this journey, appreciate the ‘misery’ of the movement.
Happiness is another journey,
almost over before it starts,
guaranteed to disappoint.
or posing as your confidante.
Follow me. Don’t follow me. I will
say such things, and mean both.
The metaphor is made clearer in this stanza, with Dunn defining the ‘journey’ of ‘happiness’, and the process it entails. Indeed, unlike physical treks, the journey to happiness is ‘almost over before it starts’, the actual destination actually ‘guaranteed to disappoint’. Here, Dunn could be rephrasing the common idea that it is not the destination, rather the journey that is important. Just being happy is not interesting, or that satisfying. What ignites the soul and makes it all worth it is the journey to happiness, experiencing the worst, and knowing that you pushed through it and won.
Enjoy the journey, ‘anytime is a fine time to laugh’, experience happiness along the way. Dunn warns against faking happiness, knowing that this cannot last and is seen by others as false, labeling oneself ‘a cowbell for the rest of your days. Dunn suggests that fake happiness is easy to spot, and must be avoided as it is a deterrent to real happiness.
The road will not be easy, ‘rocks will be jagged, the precipice sheer’, the path will be difficult to navigate. The sharpness and steepness implied by the past quote compound the sense of difficulty. Dunn is warning the reader that happiness is not achieved easily, it is something that must be fought for.
Indeed, Dunn tells us in the concluding lines of the poem, ‘Follow me. Don’t follow me.’ At the end of the day, the poet doesn’t care if you take his advice, the journey to happiness is, as he stated in the first stanza, one we take ‘alone’. Following his advice or ignoring it makes no difference to him. He hopes you do, but at the end of the day suggests that you have to take control of your own life – fight for your own happiness, begin the trek, keep trudging. You can do this.