In ‘Mistaken’ Seth explores themes of relationships and identity. He paints a picture of an unknown speaker and a listener with whom they were in a relationship. His speaker describes these events clearly, mirroring his own experience against that of the intended listener. The tone is contemplative and the speaker does not appear to be spiteful or feel jilted in any way.
Summary of Mistaken
The poem is simple, with only eight lines it outlines quickly and clearly the first time the two met, the relationship they thought they had, and how that turned out not to be the case. Whoever the speaker and listener are, they did not truly know one another. It becomes clear that they had misunderstood who the other person was and built their relationship on false pretenses.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Mistaken
‘Mistaken’ by Vikram Seth is a single stanza poem that is made up of eight lines. These lines follow a loose rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD. While the majority of the end-rhymes are perfect, such as “you” and “grew” in lines one and two. There is one couplet that is close to a half-rhyme than a full.
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. The couplet that makes use of this kind of rhyme is lines three and four, with “library” and “me”. There are also examples of half-rhymes within the lines themselves, not just at the ends. For instance, “I” and “smiled” in lines one and two or “seems” and “me” in line four.
Poetic Techniques in Mistaken
Seth makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Mistaken’. These include but are not limited to caesura, alliteration, enjambment, and sibilance. The first, caesura, occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text.
A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. In this case, a reader can look to lines two, three, four, and five for very obvious examples. Another technique, alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “love” and “loved” in line four and “From,” “first,” and “first” in line eight.
Sibilance is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. For example, “someone,” “smiled,” “strangers,” “Something,” and “seems” in lines two, three, and four.
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, as well as that between five and six.
Analysis of Mistaken
I smiled at you because I thought that you
Something that seemes like love; but you loved me
In the first lines of ‘Mistaken’, the speaker begins the description of how he met an unknown listener. The poem is directed at “you,” someone Seth’s speaker came upon in the library. They smiled at one another and he reveals that he did so because he thought they were someone else. This is an interesting phrase that grows more complicated as one has more time to think about it and the poem develops.
This person smiled back at him and between the two of them “Something that seems like love” grew. This is another misapprehension. Just as he thought he knew this person when he saw them, he also thought that they had something real, at least for a time. The fourth line, like many others, is enjambed, encouraging the reader to move ahead into the next lines.
(If that’s the word) because you thought that I
From that first glance, that first mistaken smile.
In the next lines of ‘Mistaken’ the speaker picks up the phrase that he began in the fourth line with parenthesis. Here, he creates an aside, informing the reader that he’s not even sure that “love” is the right word to describe how this person felt about him. It could be something else, but he doesn’t know what that is either.
It becomes clear that just as the speaker thought the listener was someone else, so too did the listener think the speaker was someone else. At first, this seems like a case of mistaken identity, but it is more complicated than that. It turned out what they knew, or assumed, about one another was wrong. This is to do with their personalities, morals, dreams, etc, more than their actual identities.
The last two lines use the word “mistaken” twice, emphasizing that this whole thing was a misstep. From the first “glance” they had “been mistaken all the while”.