What is the theme of the poem "Request to a Year"?

This is the assignment:

In paragraph form and in approximately 125 to 150 words, discuss the theme of “Request to a Year.” The mark for your answer will be based on the appropriateness of the example(s) you use as well as the adequacy of your explanation and the quality of your written expression.

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In order to understand this question, we first need to understand what a theme is. In literary terms, a theme is a key topic or idea a work is discussing. Sometimes, the themes in a piece are obvious, in which case, everyone will probably identify similar ones. Sometimes, they are...

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In order to understand this question, we first need to understand what a theme is. In literary terms, a theme is a key topic or idea a work is discussing. Sometimes, the themes in a piece are obvious, in which case, everyone will probably identify similar ones. Sometimes, they are harder to detect. You can make an argument for a theme others have not spotted in a work, and, as long as you give evidence for it, there is no reason your theme will be any less valid than others.

In this poem, the themes are not necessarily obvious, but we can make some suggestions. First, the poet is making a request for something: the "attitude" of her great-great-grandmother, and the "firmness of her hand." So, what is this attitude? The grandmother, in the anecdote related in the poem, has set aside her own feelings about what should be a deeply distressing scene in favor of her dedication to her artwork, because she knows that there is ultimately nothing she can do to save her child. She actually manages to make a drawing of what could have been a tragic situation, which survives to this day. So, the themes could be:

1. The importance of art as an objective record of how things are—the grandmother's objectivity and attention to detail demonstrate how art can preserve tiny moments through time.

Or, perhaps:

2. Steadfastness, and an acceptance that sometimes there is nothing we can do to change things—the grandmother does not panic, protest, or cry; instead she simply continues with what she is doing, knowing that she cannot help. Perhaps a key theme, then, is that sometimes it is the strongest people who recognize when things must be left alone, because the world will do what it will.

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In order for you to determine the theme, you have to take a look at what the poem is trying to say to you.  First, what is this poem about?

If the year is meditating a suitable gift, 
I should like it to be the attitude 
of my great- great- grandmother, 
legendary devotee of the arts,

The writer of the poem wishes she had the attitude of her great-great-grandmother, an attitude she will discuss in the poem.

who having eight children 
and little opportunity for painting pictures, 
sat one day on a high rock 
beside a river in Switzerland

Grandma had a lot of kids and not much time for practicing her artistic skills.  One day she is sitting on a big rock next to a river in Switzerland.

and from a difficult distance viewed 
her second son, balanced on a small ice flow,drift down the current toward a waterfall 
that struck rock bottom eighty feet below,

From far away she sees on of her boys on a big chunk of ice floating down the river.  At the end of the river is a nasty waterfall and the boy will be killed should he go over it.

while her second daughter, impeded, 
no doubt, by the petticoats of the day, 
stretched out a last-hope alpenstock 
(which luckily later caught him on his way).

One of her daughters, with a little trouble because of her heavy dress, is trying to hold out a pole to her brother so he can grab it (which he does, saving his life.)

Nothing, it was evident, could be done; 
And with the artist's isolating eye 
My great-great-grandmother hastily sketched the scene. 
The sketch survives to prove the story by.

The mother could do nothing to help, and could only watch.  She choose to sketch the scene.

Year, if you have no Mother's day present planned, 
Reach back and bring me the firmness of her hand.

The author once again wishes for "time" to give her the gift of her great-great-grandmother's "firm hand."

So when looking for the theme you have to ask yourself, "what is the author trying to say?"  It might have something to do with keeping a firm head under pressure (the grandmother does not panic or scream at the sight of her child in danger), or about how an artist must be detached from his/her subject (she keeps on sketching even though the outcome of what she is watching is very important to her.)  It could be about the importance of art, or a statement of fate (when something is going to happen it is going to happen, so why freak out about it.)  There are other themes in there, too, just waiting for you to discover, so have at it!

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