“Bedtime Story” appears in the third section of George MacBeth’s Collected Poems: 1958-1970. It consists of thirteen free-verse quatrains told from a narrator whose point of view is inconsistent. In the Foreword to this collection MacBeth writes that the poems in this section are “written for those who (like myself) regard themselves as children.” While that may be so, MacBeth is no ordinary child. Poems such as “House for a Child,” and “A Child’s Garden” are grouped with poems such as “When I Am Dead” and “Fourteen Ways of Touching the Peter.” Regarding oneself as a child, for MacBeth, means engaging in poetic mischief. “Bedtime Story” is a parody of bedtime stories, in that it uses the form of such a story to poke fun at the idea of happy endings and to undercut the notion that human beings are essentially good, or have generaally benign intentions towards one another. One could imagine childrens’ book author Maurice Sendak creating illustrations for the poem.
Speaking from a future, post-apocalyptic time, and recounting a story of the past, the poem’s narrator describes an incident in the Congo between the “Mission Brigade” and its encounter with the “last man.” MacBeth describes the incident in quasi-allegorical terms, implicitly criticizing the history of European colonialism and suggesting that human nature will never change: we will always trend towards self-destruction and remain blind to our own self-deception. The accidental death of the last human being parallels the deaths, both cultural and physical, of millions of Africans at the hands of colonial powers such as France and Great Britain. MacBeth seems to be saying that this has happened in the past and it will happen again. Although we put ourselves in the best possible light in the stories we tell about ourselves, the fact is that we deceive ourselves in doing so. The poem also echoes stories of the mythic wild child, that human being raised in the jungle away from the civilizing influences of society and his inevitable encounter with that society.
Lines 1-8: The title of this poem itself functions as a trap for the readers’ expectations. Conventionally a bedtime story might involve a tale of adventure pitting good against evil with good winning out in the end. The child listens, rapt with attention, maybe cathartically purging his or her emotions and energies along with the characters, then, exhausted, falls asleep, knowing that all is safe with the world. MacBeth’s version, however satirizes the idea of bedtime stories while parodying their form. Using a standard fairytale opening, the first stanza sets the scene. We understand that the present is a tame, and by implication more civilized, place because the past is described as “wild.” The Mission Brigade is a military expedition force sent to search for green-fly, which are insects, primarily aphids, which feed by sucking sap from plants. Why they are scouting for geen-fly is left unstated, but it is the first clue that the speaker of the story and those of the Mission Brigade are possibly not human. The expedition is in the Congo, a central African country. The man they encounter is called “grey” possibly to emphasize his age. We also understand that he is uncivilized, at least in comparison to the Mission Brigade, because he is “stalking a monkey,” most likely for food. The baobab tree is a large tree found in tropical Africa whose trunk sometimes reaches thirty feet in diameter. The tree bears hard-shelled fleshy fruit and large white flowers.
Lines 9-16: These stanzas place the speaker firmly in some future mythical world from which our present world is described. By including relatively common animals such as deer and rats in a list with more exotic and rare animals such as lions and rhinoceros, the speaker is making a judgement about the contemporary world’s separation from, even carelessness towards, nature. The “wars” can be read as mythical wars. Consider the nuclear conflagrations of Mad Max, or other futuristic, postapocalyptic films and novels in which some human survivors live a kind of primitive existence cut off from those with more resources. In this case, only one of those survivors remain.
Lines 17-24: These stanzas alert us to the speaker’s view that the task of the brigade was humanitarian. The speaker’s comments are informed by history. Although he knows while telling the story that...
(The entire section is 976 words.)