The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Piano” is a lyric poem reflecting the thoughts and feelings of a single speaker as he listens at dusk to a woman singing a song that brings back childhood memories of sitting at his mother’s feet while she played the piano. It is a short poem of twelve lines divided into three quatrains, rhymed aabb. The poem contains vivid images, and specific and concrete details provide a clear embodiment of his memory.

In the first stanza, a woman is singing softly to the speaker. The song takes him in memory back to his childhood, where he sees a child sitting under the piano, surrounded by the sounds of music and pressing “the small poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.” The scene is one of homely comfort and ease, of childlike innocence, of intimacy and peace.

In the second stanza, the speaker realizes that he is being sentimentally nostalgic. Yet in spite of himself, the power of memory sweeps him back into the familiar scene of a Sunday evening at home, with the cold and storms of winter kept outside. Inside, his mother is singing and playing the piano in the cozy parlor, leading the family in the singing of hymns. It is crucial that the speaker does not give in easily to his emotion; it is “in spite of myself,” he says, that “the insidious mastery of song/ Betrays me back” (lines 5-6). The speaker, now an adult, realizes the gap between his childhood perceptions, which are idealized and romanticized, and those...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lawrence centers much of his writing, both poetic and fictional, on the creation and development of a central metaphor. In “Piano,” it is the image, with all of its associations, at least in Western European Christian culture, of Sunday evenings at home with one’s family. No matter that most people’s experiences were seldom so peaceful and harmonious—Lawrence’s certainly were not either. It is the idea of a cozy and warm parlor on a cold winter’s evening, with a family gathered around a piano singing hymns and enjoying one another’s company, that is the important factor. The setting and the music combine to invoke the myth of the ideal family at home: warm, loving, reverent, and peaceful. Lawrence effectively juxtaposes this with the singer and the piano in the speaker’s present, a speaker who is about to “burst into clamor” (line 9), accompanying a piano which is reaching a crescendo with a “great black” apassionato. Notice that it is the present experience which is large, dark, and noisy; the speaker’s remembered experience is small, warm and “tingling” (line 3).

The ironic tone in the poem, and the clear ironic distance between the poetic voice and his memories of childhood, are central to the poem’s success. Without them the tone might become maudlin, but with them one sees and experiences the clear disjunction between a child’s and an adult’s eye—between a child’s perspective that all is well in the world and the adult’s knowledge, after the fact, that this was not really the case.

Lawrence’s poetic forms and devices, then, echo and reinforce the ironic gap between the original experience of the child, now transformed through the power of memory and imagination, and the current experience of the adult, which acts as trigger and catalyst for his descent into his own past.