Themes and Characters
“Discord in Childhood,” by the British poet D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), is a poem at least as interesting for its sound effects as for its content. It is a work that illustrates how a skillful writer can intensify meanings through sounds, imagery, diction, and structure. Even the title of the text is memorable in its sounds and rhythms: the words “Discord” and “Childhood” both feature strongly accented first syllables as well as heavy emphasis, through alliteration, on the consonant “d.” It is as if Lawrence wants to stress the similarities between the sheer sounds of the words in order to imply how strongly the concepts of discord and childhood are also associated in the speaker’s mind.
When the poem begins, sound effects are again immediately emphasized. Thus the first three words (“Outside the house”) use assonance (or similar vowel sounds) to link two of the poem’s key terms. This is a poem, after all, that will begin by focusing on the “Outside” (the world of nature) and then move into the interior of a “house” (the world of human beings). Yet neither world, as it turns out, is especially appealing or attractive, and the poem can in fact be seen as anti-Romantic in realistically depicting an absence of beauty and a lack of love. In poems such as this, Lawrence and other twentieth-century “modernist” authors were reacting against the naively optimistic writing sometimes associated with the Romantic and Victorian periods of the nineteenth century. Nature provides no consolation in this poem, as it often did in works by the Romantics and Victorians, nor does human love serve a reassuring function. Instead, nature here seems threatening and love seems replaced by hatred.
The speaker’s reference to the “terrible whips” of an “ash-tree” already sets a violent tone for a poem full of violence of various kinds. Perhaps the speaker has in mind a so-called “weeping ash tree,” whose branches hang almost vertically down to the ground, much like those of a “weeping willow.” Certainly the idea of weeping would be symbolically appropriate to this sad and disturbing poem, while the reference to “whips” in line 1 foreshadows the poem’s later emphasis on potential beatings and emotional pain. The ferocious sounds heard outside the house are, ironically, in some ways less troubling than the fierce arguments overheard later inside the home.
The fact that the bad weather occurs “at night” (2) seems symbolically appropriate. The poem’s setting is dark and gloomy, as are its tone and mood. Yet the speaker doesn’t simply describe an unsettling atmosphere; he actually imitates disturbances by using carefully chosen sounds. Thus, “ash” from line 1 is echoed in the violent-sounding “lash” and “slash” of lines 2 and 3, and “Shrieked” in line 3 is echoed by “shrieks” in line 4. Except for “ash,” all these words have disturbing connotations—connotations associated with pain and suffering. Repetition is a key tactic of this work, and the whole first stanza, in fact, is full of repeated sounds, as in “and” and “wind”; “wind,” “ship’s,” “rigging,” “in” and “hideously”; and also “Shrieked,” “slashed,” “ship’s,” and “shrieks.” The speaker, then, doesn’t merely refer to the weather; instead, he makes us feel its fury and its pounding, reiterated force.
Despite the poem’s emphasis on both external and internal disorder, the text is nevertheless solidly structured. Just as its first stanza begins with the phrase “Outside the house,” its second stanza opens with “Within the house.” And, while the first stanza had rhymed in an A/B/A/B pattern, the second stanza shifts to a rhyme of A/B/B/A, as if to subtly emphasize the idea of something contained within something else. Yet the second stanza also picks up (and further plays with) key words and sounds from stanza one, especially “lash,” “lash,” and “ash.” Indeed,...
(The entire section is 1,067 words.)