The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Groundhog” is a poem in free verse; its forty-eight lines are marked by no formal divisions. It traces a process of development in four main stages, however; the first stage occupies the first twenty-four lines, while the last three are allotted eight lines each.

The speaker, the “I” of the poem, is never clearly identified but is probably a man of thoughtful, even scholarly, habits. He recounts a series of four encounters with a dead groundhog, ending in the present, three years after his first sight of the lifeless animal.

Strong emotions dominate stage 1, the speaker’s first reaction to the groundhog, which has died recently. It is June, the height of the season of fullest life, but the three heavy stresses of line 3, “Dead lay he,” arrest and shock the speaker. Senses shaking and mind racing, the speaker nevertheless focuses carefully on the busy, “ferocious” process of the groundhog’s decay. He even takes action, angrily poking the body, which is seething with maggots. His anger may stem from his disgust at seeing the maggots or it may be the anger of denial, a cold rage against death. The emotion is pointless, however, for the heat of the localized natural scene becomes generalized and cosmic, as the “immense energy” of nature—from maggots to the sun—dwarfs and disarms the speaker. Standing silently, the speaker tries to make sense of his experience, hoping to balance his initial passion with...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As a whole, “The Groundhog” is a complex and unresolved metaphor, pairing two processes: the universal mortality of nature and the growth of human awareness. As the carcass of the groundhog decays and disappears, so do the speaker’s reactions develop. He moves from initial shock to intellectual paralysis to dispassionate objectivity, then ends with a recognition that combines, but does not wholly reconcile, feeling and thought.

Richard Eberhart reinforces the poem’s controlling metaphor with an equally complex treatment of the ancient poetic convention that associates the seasons of the year with the stages of individual human life. Traditionally, this convention matches spring with youth, summer with early maturity, fall with late maturity, and winter with death. “The Groundhog” modifies the convention, since its four main stages enact scenes that take place in summer, fall, summer, and summer, respectively. The sequence is fitting, for the action of the poem encompasses only three years of the speaker’s life—most likely, years of early manhood.

Outwardly, the speaker has changed very little. Inwardly, however, the process of growing awareness has been much fuller. Near the end of the poem, the speaker brings both processes together, standing “in the whirling summer” of external nature, his hand capping the “withered heart” of his internal realization that death’s power is terrible and complete.

Thus the...

(The entire section is 507 words.)