“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
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...
(The entire section is 972 words.)