In the poem “Steward Island” by Fleur Adcock, the narrator is unhappy with their place of residence and describes ways in which it is hostile to them and their family.
Examples of the island’s unpleasantness are juxtaposed with acknowledgments of its beauty. This is set up from the first line: “But look at all this beauty.” The use of “but” sets the tone for the rest of the line in that it demonstrates that what to follow is not to be seen in a positive light, even though it seems that it should be (much like the island itself).
More contrasts follow as the poem progresses. Living in a place where one can walk on the beach is generally an enviable dream, but the narrator can only walk on the beach because “it is too cold to swim.” Similarly, her sons try to enjoy activities only such a location can offer—one collecting seashells, the other paddling. But both are harmed for their attempts when one is attacked by a seagull and the other “bitten by sandflies.” Even the hotel manager’s wife is included in this contrast. She is the one who admires the beauty of the island, yet later on, it is revealed that she ultimately runs off with one of the “Maori fishermen with Scottish names.”
The author also uses the literary device of enjambment—“the running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation.” This device, particularly when paired with the shortened structure of the lines and the contrasting descriptions, give the poem an anxious, broken tone. Together, these techniques convey the same hostility and discomfort that the narrator feels when considering the island.
This discomfort culminates in the final lines of the poem: “I had already decided / to leave the country.” Despite the beauty of the landscape, the island is a negative place for the narrator. Ultimately, “Steward Island” is a poem of disillusionment in the face of beauty.