The Poem

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“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 understanding. He hopes for a spiritual benefit as well, for the first stage ends with the speaker “Praying for joy in the sight of decay.”

Stage 2 occurs during the autumn of that same year, when the speaker returns intentionally to see the groundhog’s remains. He revisits the scene “strict of eye,” but finds only a disappointing, shapeless hulk. Consciousness predominates and seems to have inhibited or destroyed the man’s emotional powers. He concedes that he has gained wisdom, but at an excessive cost. The next summer, in stage 3, the speaker chances upon the site of the groundhog’s corpse, of which only hair and bones remain. In line 39, the speaker sees the groundhog objectively, “like a geometer.” He cuts a walking stick, a steadying contrast to his angry stick of the previous summer.

The speaker reports on his fourth and final stage of development in the present, three summers after his first sight of the carcass. By now, the groundhog has decayed completely, leaving the speaker to recapitulate the whole process. The poem’s last six lines summarize the process and compare it to historical figures, from its physical stage of vigorous summer and the conqueror Alexander, through the intellectual stage of withered emotion and the detachment of the ironic thinker Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, to the spiritual stage of Saint Theresa.

Forms and Devices

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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,...

(This entire section contains 507 words.)

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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 poem’s main metaphor involves both parallels and juxtapositions of humankind and nature. At first, the speaker registers the parallel of shared mortality. Viewing the dead groundhog, he is shocked to note “our naked frailty” in line 4. This early insight, however, is only momentary, as the speaker shifts to intense visualization and desperate action. After he pokes the carcass, the speaker sees the power of nature expand from the tiny maggots to a universal fever, a cosmic power that leaves him feeling powerless. His only refuge is silent contemplation, as he tries to control his emotions, hoping that he will come to understand the relationship of universal death and human awareness.

His return in fall is subdued, since he has allowed his intervening intellectual pursuits to wall out his earlier emotional response. The speaker himself is aware of the seasonal metaphor, for during this stage—the only one not to occur in summer—he recognizes that “the year had lost its meaning” (line 29).

The next summer’s visit owes little to conscious effort; the speaker chances upon the site. In this brief scene, the speaker replays his first visit, but with important differences. He views the disintegrating carcass, but his vision is calm and objective. Again, he uses a stick, not as an angry goad, but as a walking stick, an aid to steadiness and direction.

The poem’s fourth and last stage recapitulates and combines both metaphorical parallels and juxtapositions. The season is again summer, with the speaker at a new height of awareness, a state that includes both emotional loss and increased but chastened thought. His conclusion, expanded by allusions to human civilizations and exemplary individuals, testifies to the omnipotence of death.