The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s posthumously published “The Cricket” is an irregular ode of 131 lines divided into five sections of unequal length. The titular insect, at first glance almost comically inconsequential, provokes in the poet a meditation on death that leads him ultimately to affirm the value of life.

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The introductory section presents a lyrical consideration of sound-producing insects. Both the “humming bee” and the “dogday locust” have their bards, but the cricket, whose voice is “bright” among “the insect crowd,” has not been sung of before. After identifying the cricket as the subject of the ode, the poet also invokes the insect as his muse: “Shall I not take to help me in my song/ A little cooing cricket?”

Although the rest of the poem is written in the first person, the second section utilizes a second-person voice. The speaker addresses his audience directly, inviting the reader to imagine a setting in which “our minstrel’s carol,” the song of the cricket, can be heard and appreciated. First a shady spot beside a brook is pictured, then “a garden bower” with overhanging leaves and vines. In both places, the sleepy afternoon produces a half-waking, half-dreaming state. As consciousness thus becomes receptive to the natural world, the landscape suddenly seems filled with crickets and their singing.

In the third section, the mood of the poem changes as the poet begins to contemplate the meaning of the ubiquitous cricket’s song. During the day, it is joyful; at night, it brings “rest and silence.” Along with these cheering notes, however, the speaker hears first the sound of the sea and then “dim accents from the grave.” In many of Tuckerman’s other poems, the sea appears as a symbol of impermanence and mutability; and the grave represents death and the end of human loves, desires, and attachments. The third section concludes with the poet reminded of loved ones who have died, “faces where but now a gap must be.”

The fourth section offers a meditation on the history of the cricket’s song. As the poet now hears notes of death, so too ancient people listening to this insect must have heard the same melancholy murmur. Impermanence and death, then, are recognized as central, lasting concerns in human history.

The fifth section is the longest of the poem. The speaker imagines an “Enchanter old” who knows a plant that will make the “cry of beast, or bird, or insect’s hum” understandable. The poet wishes that, like the enchanter, he could comprehend the language of the cricket and be its “true interpreter.” Since the cricket’s song has become associated with “dim accents from the grave,” however, the interpretation of that song—his poetry—would necessarily be associated with death as well. He realizes that his desire to understand the cricket is unwise because a knowledge of death would blunt his creative response to the living beauty around him. He therefore accepts the ultimate incomprehensibility of the natural world and chooses life, impermanent as it is, over death as a theme for his poetry. The conclusion of “The Cricket” firmly announces this choice: “Rejoice! rejoice! whilst yet the hours exist.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

As an irregular ode, “The Cricket” belongs to a time-honored poetic genre. Odes are poems on elevated subjects such as death. Regular odes maintain a predictable stanzaic pattern, while irregular odes uses stanzas (often called “strophes”) and lines of uneven length. Originally a classical form, the ode achieved a new popularity during the Romantic period at the hands of William Wordsworth and John Keats.

In “The Cricket,” Tuckerman uses the formal freedom of the irregular ode to create an almost musical composition. The five sections of the poem alternate in mood and intensity. The first section is light and airy as the cricket is introduced; the second is slower, more somnolent, as a contemplative mood develops. The third section turns suddenly dark and somber as the poet considers death, while the fourth offers limited relief by urging that death has always been a human concern. The fifth section builds slowly from the speaker’s desire to understand the cricket’s song to his triumphant realization that in the face of death, life can still be enjoyed.

While these changing moods originate in the literal meaning of the poem, they are strongly reinforced by its form. Although the meter is predominantly iambic, the irregular style allows Tuckerman to utilize lines of as few as four syllables and as many as twelve. These short and long lines intermix to create a flexible, varying rhythm throughout the poem. This rhythm is interrupted only in the third section, where the formal consideration of death begins; there, stately lines of iambic pentameter fit the serious mood.

Tuckerman adds a further rhythmic dimension to the poem by repeating syntactical patterns. The following lines from the second section provide a basic example of this practice: “The falling water and fluttering wind/ Mingle and meet,/ Murmur and mix.” The most obvious poetic device in these lines is the alliterative repetition of f, w, and m sounds, but the quotation also shows how the poet creates a cadenced passage by substituting one word for another in a repeated grammatical construction. For example, in the first line, “falling water” is mirrored by “fluttering wind,” both nouns preceded by adjectives; the grammatical structure in the second line, two verbs separated by a conjunction, is reproduced exactly in the third line where “mingle and meet” is replaced by “murmur and mix.”

Tuckerman often joins this syntactical patterning to other rhythmic devices, as the following lines from the fifth section demonstrate: “Content to bring thy wisdom to the world;/ Content to gain at last some low applause,/ Now low, now lost.” Again, in the first two lines the syntactical structure is partially repeated; in the last line, the words are divided into two grammatically equivalent halves. The alliteration in the lines reinforces the syntactical patterning by repeating t, th, and l sounds. In the second and third lines, the repetition of “low” and the consonantal rhyme of “last” and “lost” amounts almost to a chiasmus, a poetic device in which repeated words or phrases are reversed (last/low, low/lost) in successive syntactical units.

These examples suggest how rhythmic cadences can be created without reliance on strict metrical regularity. Arguably, “The Cricket” is a poem about which one learns more by simply listening carefully as it is read aloud than by formally analyzing its metrical characteristics.

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Themes