‘Mementos, 1,’ as the title hints at, is about a token or souvenir making the speaker remind of the love of his life. The sudden discovery of an old photograph of the wife when she was young, dressed in a long decorated gown for their first dance, takes the speaker to the past. He loved her. She loved him too. But, the marriage ended abruptly with a heap of futile memories in his heart. Though he clings to them, they make him suffer internally.
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‘Mementos, 1’ by W. D. Snodgrass is about a photograph of the speaker’s wife, reminding him of the beginning and end of their relationship.
At the beginning of the poem, the speaker is seen sorting out some old things. He found his wife’s picture there. The discovery made him stunned like a man who has suddenly found a severed hand in a pile of dead leaves. He was glad to have the old picture of hers in which she dressed in a long gown decorated with green lace netting and daisies. She wore that dress at their first dance. While he served as a soldier during the Second World War, he had the same picture in order to relieve his mind from the horrific incidents. Before their official divorce, they already drained each other’s feelings. Yet, the speaker put the picture back where it was, hoping to stumble upon it again in the same, careless manner.
You can read the full poem here.
Sorting out letters and piles of my old
Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
Who has turned up a severed hand.
W. D. Snodgrass’ poem ‘Mementos, 1’ is a touching poem that uses the confessional mode in order to explore the depths of a personal tragedy. In this poem, the speaker, who is none other than the poet himself, reflects back on his first marriage: how the relationship started and how it culminated in a divorce. The poem starts with the nostalgic act of looking through the old belongings and finding a photograph that sparked the old memories.
Snodgrass’ persona describes how he happened to find a picture of his first wife one day while he was sorting out old letters, canceled checks, paper clippings, and yellow note cards. The poet uses visual imagery in order to depict the scene. It is interesting to note that the speaker found the picture at the bottom of the old pile. It means either he did not wish this picture to be found or left it intentionally beneath everything as he could not throw it away.
Whatever the case may be, the discovery was quite shocking for him. He emphasizes the phrase, “That picture”. It means it was one of the pictures that the speaker loved. Stunned, he stood there cold like a man who had suddenly discovered a piece of hand from a pile of old leaves. Like the “severed hand,” the picture was part of the fading memory of an amputated relationship.
Still, that first second, I was glad: you stand
And our ideals came easy.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes how they first met. Though the first reaction to the picture was not great, he still felt glad to have it. That first second of holding the old picture again in his hands reminded him of the good, old days when they were together. The picture was taken before they went to their first dance. It was her solo photograph. She was dressed in a long gown with green lace netting and daisies and looked shy, delicate, and slender. The sight of her in that dress stunned everyone at the dance party.
In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker’s tone takes a bit of a wry turn from the glad and pleasant commentaries in the preceding lines. He is of the view that their needs or tastes were different then. Their “ideals” or principles were more or less the same. They both were young. That’s why they did not think much about the future. They felt for one another. There was nothing much they thought about at that time.
Then through the war and those two long years
That was before we got married.
In the third stanza, Snodgrass recounts another personal event. This stanza specifically deals with the themes of the horrors of war and death. Snodgrass was drafted into the US Navy when he was eighteen. He met his first wife at that time. In the same year, he went to Japan to serve in the World War II military campaign.
In this stanza, Snodgrass shares a few glimpses of the days he spent in Japan. He spent two long years in the war. Every now and then, he came across dead Japanese in their shacks among the dishes, dolls of their children, and lost shoes. The images create a futile projection of the war. Dead men lying around amid the leftovers, indeed, shook him at the core.
According to the speaker, he became so frightened that he had to resort to “That picture” in order to choke down his emotions. Else, the images would come up again to haunt him again. Besides, the picture also made him realize that no matter what he had to return, alive. The love of his life was waiting at home, counting the days of his return.
—Before we drained out one another’s force
I will find that it’s still there.
The poet does not mention any events from his married life. There are only two milestone events in his personal life: marriage and divorce. He could not remember or did not want to recount anything between these timestamps. Thus, the fourth stanza of ‘Mementos, 1’ begins with the phase of draining out each other’s energy to stay put in that relationship.
According to the speaker, they both were responsible for the climactic event. They literally forced one another to drain out their emotions. There were lies, self-denial, unspoken regrets, and the sick eyes filled with blame. The discord in their relationship made him think that the feeling they had for one another before marriage was nothing but an act of “treachery.”
At last, the speaker put back the picture where it initially was. He thought someday he would find the picture in the same manner. Then he would feel shocked to have it there. It’s love. Some memories, no matter how bitter they are, stay with us like the old picture of the speaker’s wife.
Structure and Form
‘Mementos, 1’ is written in the confessional form, featuring a deeply personal event of divorce or the discord in marriage. This piece consists of a total of four stanzas, each having six lines. It is written in free-verse, without a set rhyme scheme or meter. Readers can find occasional rhyming in the words “old” and “cold” in the first stanza, “carried” and “married” in the third stanza, and “force,” “divorce,” and “course” in the last stanza. Besides being a confessional poem, it is written in first-person, from the poet Snodgrass’ point of view.
Snodgrass uses the following literary devices in the poem ‘Mementos, 1’:
- Enjambment: This device is used throughout the poem. Enjambment is the use of run-on lines to keep the flow intact. For instance, it occurs in “Sorting out letters and piles of my old/ Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards/ That meant something once, I happened to find/ Your picture.”
- Simile: It occurs in the last two lines of the first stanza. The speaker compares his astonishment with that of a man who has found a severed hand while raking piles of dead leaves in his yard.
- Irony: Snodgrass makes use of irony in these lines, “Well, our needs were different, then,/ And our ideals came easy.” These lines foreshadow the impending divorce.
- Allusion: There is an allusion to World War II in the third stanza. Snodgrass was enlisted in the US Navy in 1944 and served for two years in the campaign of capturing Japan.
- Metaphor: There is a metaphor in the lines, “—Before we drained out one another’s force/ With lies, self-denial, unspoken regret”. In these lines, the speaker compares lies, self-denial, regret, and blame to the forces that drained out the emotions they had for one another.
The poem ‘Mementos, 1’ was first published in William Snodgrass’ second collection of poetry, After Experience: Poems and Translations (1967). After graduating from a high school in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Snodgrass attended Geneva College in 1944. Shortly after, he went to serve in the United States Navy as a typist. Before going to the war, he met his first wife, Lila Jean Hank, whom he married in 1946 upon his return. The marriage lasted for seven years, ending in divorce. He had a daughter with Hank. The separation from his daughter and the trauma of the marriage were the subjects of his first collection, Heart’s Needle (1959). In ‘Mementos, 1,’ Snodgrass similarly talks about an old photograph of his first wife, with a special emphasis on their divorce.
Snodgrass’ poem ‘Mementos, 1’ is about an old photograph of the speaker’s wife, with whom his relationship did not last long and their marriage ended in divorce. This picture reminds the speaker of their first encounter and the last days of their marriage.
The main message of the poem is that no matter how bitter some memories are, they still tend to stick to our hearts, calling upon the same pangs that we badly want to forget. In this poem, the speaker even though hates to remember the bitter days of his first relationship, he still keeps the picture of his lover.
It is a confessional piece of poetry, written from the first-person point of view. This poem is about some personal events of the poet’s life revolving around an old photograph of his wife. It consists of four six-line stanzas without any set meter or rhyme scheme.
The important themes of the poem are discord in marriage, remembrance of the things past, love, horrors of war, and death. The last two themes occur specifically in the third stanza.
The following list of poems that tap on the themes present in W. D. Snodgrass’ poem ‘Mementos, 1.’
- ‘Decomposition’ by Zulfikar Ghose — This poem centers on a photograph of an old beggar sleeping on a roadside pavement.
- ‘For Once, Then, Something’ by Robert Frost — This piece focuses on the elusive nature of truth with the story of a man looking through a well from the wrong side.
- ‘A Photograph’ by Shirley Toulson — This powerful poem is about loss, memory, and time.
- ‘DIVORCE’ by Kanye West — This piece was written in order to reflect the experiences during West’s divorce from Kim Kardashian.
You can also read these memorable heartbreak poems.