The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Happiness” is a short poem in free verse. Its thirty-one lines are arranged in five symmetrical stanzas containing four, eight, seven, eight, and four lines respectively. The last is a quasi stanza, emanating from a dropped line in the previous stanza. Dramatic intensity builds and then subsides; the central stanza is the keystone, carrying the poem’s rhythmic and thematic weight. The lines of the first and last stanzas are similar in length and meter, with three or four stresses per line. The three middle stanzas are more irregular, containing lines with five stresses and ending on shortened lines. The final words of the middle stanzas—“alone,” “despair,” and “night”—precede an emptiness both visual and aural.

The poem is meditative. The “you” of the poem addresses both the general audience and the individual reader. As the poem progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that the “you” also includes the speaker and that the poem is born of the speaker’s suffering. The first two stanzas introduce the two driving forces of the poem: parable and paradox. The parable of the prodigal son, as related in the New Testament, tells of a young man who squanders his inheritance in another country. Contrite and destitute, he returns to his father, seeking forgiveness and shelter. The father not only forgives the son but also honors him with finery and a feast. The parable of the prodigal son is presented in the poem virtually intact,...

(The entire section is 525 words.)