The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621

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William Matthews’s “Hope” consists of five three-line, free-verse stanzas that examine the swift passage of time, the weight of mortality, and the cycle of life. The relationships between father and daughter and humanity and nature are examined simultaneously and are linked by the poem’s assertion that time both obliterates and facilitates these relationships. The poem begins by listing two ambitions of the poem’s protagonist: “Beautiful floors and a lively/ daughter.” By juxtaposing these two unlike desires the poem propounds that humans are at once preoccupied with frivolity and concerned with posterity, perhaps even some form of provisional immortality. Based on these assertions, Matthews suggests to the reader that despite the fact that all people must die, there is hope not only in desires but also in fulfillment of the most benevolent ambitions.

The two ambitions spelled out in the first stanza are elaborated upon in the second stanza. The desires of the protagonist are made more complex, and the story and circumstance of life become more complicated: “that the dear piñata of her head/ not loose its bounty.” The imagery here is not only playful but also serious, as it points to the trepidation and helplessness parents and caregivers—humanity as a whole—feel as they watch the continuance of their life force venture out into the world. The second stanza also notes the careful, minute precautions many take so those they love remain unharmed: “the girl’s/ father scored the soles of her new shoes/ with a pocketknife, that she not slide.” Here, irony is introduced to the poem as the protagonist’s two desires are placed in conflict: His smooth, beautiful floors combined with his precious daughter’s new shoes threaten to empty her head of “its bounty.” The irony set in motion here prepares the reader for the more universal irony that concludes the poem.

The third stanza further demonstrates how irony infuses itself into the most mundane activities. The reader is once again reminded of the conflicting desires and how one desire can damage or negate another, more precious desire, such as the daughter, whom the father wants to protect from turning “finally upside-/ down on the oak floors he’d sanded/ and buffed slick.”

This leads into the fourth stanza, which possesses the poem’s strongest turn: “long before she first// gurgled from her crib. Now he’s dead/ and she’s eighty.” Part of the passage’s strength comes from the surprising turn in the poem’s narrative. While the poem’s first three stanzas tell a story of a father’s care for his daughter alongside his nearly harmless obsession with hardwood floors, the fourth stanza focuses on the dark truths of time’s passage and the human condition. Although the reader may be shocked when reading this fourth stanza, one must keep in mind that the revelation given here is, finally, not surprising at all. To kill the father off, so to speak, and to present the girl as an elderly woman gives the poem pathos, lifting it out of the realm of mere levity.

The final stanza, however, shifts the focus once more. A poem concerned with time’s dominion over living things suddenly becomes a meditation on nature itself, including humankind and its relationship with nature. Time is “a tough nut to crack// and then a sapling, then a tree, and/ then somebody else’s floor long/ after we ourselves are planted.” The poem’s cyclical trajectory completes itself with this universal gesture. “Hope” finally offers a view of the human condition that is equally pessimistic and optimistic; in order for one to remain hopeful, Matthews’s poem asserts, one must die, which, ironically enough, one must.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

Matthews’s ironic vision relies not only on the specificity of details but also on the anonymous nature of his characters. They are at once intimate and distanced. This detached quality affords the poem’s characters a multiplicity of personality, for they are emblematic of humanity. Irony can also be found in the poem’s tone, which again is supported by the details’ specificity. To describe one’s head not simply as a piñata but as a “dear piñata” forges a voice that is simultaneously wise, idiosyncratic, and endearing. This is the first of only two metaphors in the poem. The second comes in the last stanza, which describes time as a nut, a sapling, and a tree. The absence of analogy, upon which most poetry supports itself, suggests that “Hope” should be read as a symbolic tale, a fable without an obvious moral. Readers are subtly introduced to the nimble activity of Matthews’s mind.

In addition to the tonal irony, the poem’s enjambments and inverted syntax give the poem its leisurely energy, its illusion of calm spontaneity. The first three stanzas are composed of one sentence that ends in the first line of the fourth stanza. The loose tetrameter paces the flourish of this sentence. Perhaps subconsciously, the reader’s attention is grabbed by the sentence’s ambling down the page. On a conscious level, one’s attention focuses on the details within this sentence; the imagery is clear, fresh, and quirky. One such example is in the first line of the fourth stanza: The juxtaposition of the daughter’s crib with the father’s death is a microcosm of the poem’s larger project.

The poem’s epigrammatic quality—a narrative concerned with the human cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, in only fifteen lines—is the poem’s most notable technical achievement. Its economy prevents the poem from slipping into something that could be dismissed as sentimental or histrionic. Its façade of simplicity and nonchalance, supported by the details and meter, further support the wit and irony of not only the poem’s structure and devices but also its meaning.