Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem “A Prodigal” follows an unusual form: it is a double sonnet. Each of the stanzas is fourteen lines with the first stanza following the Italian sonnet format and the second stanza following the Shakespearean form.
The poet uses the first stanza to describe the life of the prodigal. The second stanza serves to examine the thoughts of the prodigal as he tries to decide when to return to a normal life.
The poet’s imagery vividly creates the scene of the poem for the reader. The sights, smells, and atmosphere of the barn and the pig sty place the reader in the middle of the rotting floor and odorous barn.
The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
The prodigal is accepted into the world of the animals. The pigs watch him with happy eyes as he does his work. Obviously, this place is not fit for human habitation; therefore, the prodigal has accepted his place in the bestial world as punishment for his foolish behavior.
Placing himself in exile, the prodigal finds comfort by scratching the head of the pig that eats its young. The real respite for the wayward son comes from his furtive drinking that occurs at night when the animals have been put to rest. The farmer does not know about his drinking because he hides the bottle behind the boards.
Rather than a hangover in the morning, the prodigal awakens to the sunshine, happy with the difference that a new day brings. When the sun brightens the world, he feels that he can survive a while longer in this environment.
When the star comes in the second stanza, it brings a warning. The farmer will soon come to put the animals to bed as in the time of the Ark when Noah gave the animals a safe haven. The star may also represent the star that came when the wise men followed the star to Bethlehem.
While the farmer and the prodigal take care of the animals with hay and water, the light comes from a lantern. There is no talking between the farmer and the prodigal; and soon the animals, particularly the pigs, bed down for the night. The farmer carries his lantern with him as he returns to his home, leaving the prodigal to watch the light hitting the ground, appearing like a circle of light or halo above a holy person.
The prodigal son is left to finish his chores while averting a blind bat finding his place to bed. From these events, the prodigal knows that he should find his way to his home, but it still will take him a while to decide to go.