Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1386
Phillips starts "All It Takes" by reinforcing the title, echoing the meaning of "all" with the poem's first word, "any." While the title of the poem leaves open the suggestion of what might be necessary, the first line narrows the subject of the work down to a "force," proceeding to define what might be considered to be forces.
The second and third lines suggest phenomena that might be regarded as the kinds of forces the poem is talking about, offering readers a range from positive to negative, aggressive to benign. "Generosity" is, of course, thought to be one of the most selfless of human attributes; "sudden updraft" is a breeze that is beyond the control of an individual; "fear" is one of the most destructive of human emotions. What they all have in common, as pointed out in line 3, is that they cannot be seen by the human eye.
In the second stanza, the poem focuses on the ways in which people can understand phenomena that are not directly experienced by the senses. Phillips explains that they have "effects by which we know them." Unlike emotions, gestures can be observed, and the emotions to which those gestures correspond can be understood by interpreting the gestures. At the end of line 5, Phillips uses the word "betrayed" and then employs the same word once again at the start of line 6, to imply that the revealed emotions are reluctant to have their natures exposed by the gestures that reveal them. Repeating the word gives a feeling of sadness to the process, as if the emotions acknowledge the inevitability of the fact that they must be revealed.
The second stanza ends with an image from nature. Fog is sometimes so light that it cannot be seen by the naked eye; still, even when it is not visible, the moisture that it leaves hanging in the air will accumulate on the skin, so that the body can feel what surrounds it more clearly than the eye can see it.
Building on the image of fog, the poem moves from the issue of transparency to the feeling of being engulfed. The fog is referred to in line 7 as "it," though the poem does not actually state that the winter berries are "inside it" until two lines later, weaving a complex verbal path that resembles, in its twists and turns, the dense thicket in which the berries grow. A thicket is frequently used as a metaphor for a place so dense that things are hidden from view within it, but line 8 refers to a "thicket of nowhere left to hide": the poem is downplaying the importance of physical distraction, placing emphasis instead on the meaning of the thicket. A person might not be able to see through the thicket, but one knows what is in it, and, in that sense, it hides nothing. The winter berries are an anomaly: while berries and fruit often grow in the summer, on plants nurtured by the photosynthesis of their leaves, these berries are unguarded and cold, seeming to grow from their own force of will.
The first word of this stanza, "shine," emphasizes the radiance of the winter berries. Usually such berries on barren branches would be viewed as pitiful objects, abandoned and forgotten, but Phillips uses their isolation to emphasize their individuality, showing how surviving through the winter makes the berries stand out, even in the dense fog and within the center of a thicket.
In lines 10 and 11, Phillips makes a statement about the nature of belief: that it is necessary only after the ability to have faith comes into existence. This contradicts common sense, which would generally hold that the need for belief would create the ability to believe. By reversing this order, the poem puts out a positive, uplifting message: the emphasis on the ability, rather than the need, takes away the sense of desperation. The poem says that belief is not something that has to be found but rather is inherent in consciousness from the very beginning.
The reference to ancient Greeks and Romans in line 12 supports the innate ability to believe, tracing this ability back through the centuries. The poem does not expect readers to just accept this claim, but instead offers proof that ability has preceded need throughout most of recorded history.
The Greek goddess of love is Aphrodite, referred to in Roman mythology as Venus. Although her association with beauty might lead people to assume that Aphrodite led a serene life, she was, in fact, a lively participant in the affairs of men and gods. She was, for instance, instrumental in turning the Trojan War into a prolonged and bloody battle: the assembled armies agreed that they would abide by the result of a one-on-one fight between Menelaus, the husband of Helen of Troy, and Paris, her lover, but Aphrodite was so in love with Paris that she removed him and protected him, forcing the battle into a conflict involving thousands of men. There are many other instances in which Aphrodite proved to be an adventurer—the "wild god" mentioned in the poem.
The goddess of fidelity is Hera, the wife of Zeus, the king of the gods. Although she was not necessarily small in stature, as the poem suggests, her exploits were tamer than those of Aphrodite. The most widely known myth about Hera concerns her participation in the judgment of Paris, the event that began the Trojan War: three goddesses (Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena) asked the mortal Paris to judge which of them was fairest, with Aphrodite winning because she bribed Paris with the love of Helen, considered to be the most beautiful of mortal women.
The poem reverses expectations in lines 14 and 15 by stating that the speaker is "no less grateful for the berries than for the thorns": normally, one would consider a person to be vastly more grateful for the berries and to perhaps bring the balance close to even by elevating the position of the thorns, saying, "I am no less grateful for the thorns than for the berries." The way that Phillips puts it, though, makes it seem as if people would expect him to be grateful for the thorns but not the berries.
This stanza concerns the balance of nature. The speaker carries over the thought that began on line 15, that the thorns on a bush are probably meant to be helpful, not harmful. The interjection of "I think" in line 16 reminds readers that what the poet is saying is all far from certain in his mind. If thorns do serve a positive purpose, then there is more order to the world than is apparent from looking at it, just like an invisible fog or a blindingly dense thicket. The "quiet arrangement" mentioned in line 18 supports this idea of an unstated order to the world that one must take on faith, without concrete evidence. It is a balance between violence and beauty, captured by bonding together the words "cut" and "flowers."
The poem ends with images of death. Eyes that are lidless are eyes that are always open, on vigilant watch. Death, on the other hand, is usually described as a kind of sleep, most likely because it resembles sleep, in which the body lies still with closed eyes. In this poem, though, the expectations are reversed: the author tells his reader to "make death the one whose eyes are lidless." Thus, he says that death should be the state of constant alertness and that life, by contrast, should be a state of ease and contentment.
In the line before last, the speaker finally mentions another person, a "you." This person is described first as leaving and then as having "crossed the water," a reference to ancient mythology, where the dead were ferried across the river Styx into the underworld when they died. Having already urged the reader to look at death as a time of awareness, the poem tells the reader that death is not an abstract, future event to be dealt with at some later date; it is already here. The main part of the poem is focused on making readers aware of the unseen things in this world, but the ending lines point in the direction of the ultimate unknowable state, death.
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