What poetic devices are used in "The Whipping" by Robert Hayden? In which lines of the poem do these poetic devices take place?

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Robert Hayden's poem "The Whipping" features enjambment, alliteration, metaphor, repetition, and contrast to describe an old woman whipping a boy.

Enjambment is seen throughout "The Whipping." This is a technique in which thoughts continue past the end of the line and often end in the middle of another line. For example, here are lines 9-12:

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
    boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
    to woundlike memories:

Lines 9-11 are an example of enjambment because the thought in these lines ends in the middle of line 11 after "hand" and a new thought begins mid-line. This may reflect the relentless nature of the beating itself.

Alliteration is a technique Hayden uses quite often in the poem, as well. In the lines quoted above, there is alliteration of words that begin with "s": "She," "strikes," "shrilly," and "stick." There are many examples of alliteration with the letter "w" throughout the poem as well (see lines 1-2, 15-16, for example).

Also in the above-quoted lines, we see a metaphor in lines 11-12: 

His tears are rainy weather
    to woundlike memories:

The comparison of the boy's "tears" to "rainy weather" is figurative and does not use the words "like" or "as," making it a metaphor. This metaphor emphasizes the pain the boy experiences and the length of the beating.

We see repetition and contrast in "The Whipping," as well. In line 9, Hayden repeats the word "strikes" twice and also writes the word "blows" in lines 15 and 16; the repetition helps to emphasize the brutality of the beating and, like the metaphor, the length of time it spans. Finally, a contrast is made between the woman and the boy early in the poem:

The old woman across the way
    is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
    her goodness and his wrongs.

Here, the contrast is made between the woman's "goodness" and the boy's "wrongs," which, given the vivid detail of the brutality of this beating and the speaker's reaction to it ("My head gripped in bony vise / of knees"), seems ironic. We see here that from the woman's perspective, she is correct in administering this beating and that the boy deserves this treatment. The final stanza also reiterates this idea by implying that the woman achieves some sort of catharsis through the beating.

jmj616 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Whipping," by Robert Hayden, is about an old woman who whips a boy.

One of the most important poetic devices used in this poem is alliteration--the repetition of initial consonant sounds.  In particular, the poet favors the "w" sound throughout this short poem; it is used at the beginning of 10 words.  Perhaps the poet wants to imitate a crying, sobbing sound, like "wa-wa-wa."

Another device used is metaphor--comparisons that do not contain the words "like" or "as."  See lines 11-12:

His tears are rainy weather

to woundlike memories

The poet is comparing the boy's tears to rain.

Another simple device in this poem is repetition.  See line 9: "She strikes and strikes," and lines 15:

to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows...

Further Reading:
sangelis84 | Student

Hayden uses a number of metaphors throughout "The Whipping." A metaphor is a poetic device that draws a connection between two generally unrelated things in order to suggest a new image or idea. For example, in line 11-12, he writes: 

"His tears are rainy weather / to woundlike memories." 

Here, Hayden is drawing a connection between "tears" and "rainy weather." In this case, the relationship suggests that the tears of the whipped boy are cleansing (like rainy weather) to painful memories that plague the old woman. In fact, "woundlike memories" is also figurative language, drawing the connection between the woman's memories (of course) and an injury that still hasn't healed, to suggest that these memories cause pain. (At the end of the poem, it becomes clear that the whipping is a cathartic act of violence for the old woman, who feels "purged" and "avenged in part" for the sorrows and difficulties she's "had to bear.") 

In addition to metaphor, Hayden uses consonance frequently in this poem. Consonance involves repeating consonant sounds in close proximity to each other. In poetry, consonance can be used to create a certain tone, or mood, by using one sound or another. In this poem, Hayden uses lots of harsh consonants. For instance, in lines 9-10, he writes: 

"She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling / boy till the stick breaks..."

This line uses lots of "s" sounds, and also harsher "k" sounds. These sounds have the effect of a series of blows or strikes--harsh, short, differentiated sounds that land in fast sequence, like the lash of the whip. 


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Robert Hayden

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