In ‘How Rarely These Few Years’ Seth delves into themes of forgiveness, family relationships, and the finiteness of time. The poem speaks on an unclear, deep ceded family issue that should, in its vagueness, feel relatable to numerous readers. Seth uses a straightforward and clear tone to address an emotional subject. The mood is contemplative but by the end darker, and even fearful as the speaker considers the future and what it would be like to be the last living member of his family.
The poem addresses the fact that the speaker, his brother, and sister have not all visited their parents in a long time. The speaker doesn’t say why, but there is something unresolved in their past, something that is hard to forgive. He considers what it’s going to be like in the future if everyone dies and he, or another of his family members, is the last one living. It would be lonely, but it would also mean there was no chance to fix what is now broken.
You can read the full poem here.
‘How Rarely These Few Years’ by Vikram Seth is a two stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD. The ones are also similar in length with the odd-numbered, starting with one of stanza one, reaching thirteen syllables, and the even-numbered lines shorter, reaching nine syllables.
There are also examples of half-rhyme within this short poem, adding to its rhythm and the feeling of unity created within and between the stanzas. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example “years” and “fares” in lines one and two of the first stanza and “Myself,” “my,” and “die” in line four of the first stanza and line one of the second.
Seth makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘How Rarely These Few Years’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and personification. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example “few” and “fares” in lines one and two of the first stanza and “last” and “living” in lines three and four of the second stanza.
Personification is another powerful literary technique at play. It occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In the second line of the second stanza, the speaker says that “This flesh and blood is unforgiving”. Here, he is depicting the human body itself as being incapable of forgiveness. This is an interesting and impactful way of describing their family connection.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two and three and four of the second stanza.
How rarely all these few years, as work keeps us aloof,
Myself my sister, and my brother.
In the first stanza of ‘How Rarely These Few Years’ the speaker makes use of the phrase that would later come to be used as the title of the poem. He is speaking about how “rarely” the family has come together over the last few years. There have been plenty of things that have kept them apart but each seems rather frivolous at this moment.
There was sometimes work and “fares” to use as an excuse. Those things, in theory, kept them from seeing one another or spending any time under their parent’s roof. He has a sister and a brother and although they do not share their opinions he alludes to the fact that they have trouble coming together just as he does.
All five of us will die; to reckon from the past
To bear it all and go on living.
In the second stanza, he speaks on the future and what’s going to happen if nothing changes. The family might continue to stay away from one another. He considers their deaths in the future. Eventually, they will all die and anything they left unreconciled in the past will still exist. It is clear that he does not want to take their arguments or differences to the grave with him.
The speaker also thinks about what it would be like to be the last one of the family alive. “just one of us will be the last / to bear it all and go on living”. Then, when everyone else is dead there will be no chance to fix what was broken or make living easier.