The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

“Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny” is a forty-six-line poem arranged in four stanzas. Jacob Grimm and his brother Wilhelm were well-known nineteenth century German collectors of fairy tales. As the title indicates, the poet is reading these fairy tales to her daughter Jenny. In later collections, the poem includes the subtitle “Dead means somebody has to kiss you,” which shows that Jenny is young enough to form her image of death from a fairy tale, specifically from the story of Snow White, who was awakened from deathlike sleep by a kiss. Although the poet seems to be addressing the child, she is not speaking but thinking the poem while reading fairy tales aloud. In fact, the poet is arguing with herself. By implication, she is also arguing with her contemporary American peers, many of whom disapprove of fairy tales for children in the belief that they present a false picture of life.

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In the first stanza, the poet contrasts Jenny’s “black and white” world, in which things happen by magic, with the poet’s “real world,” which functions by negotiating (“gray foxes and gray wolves/ bargain eye to eye”) and by doing what it takes to survive (“the amazing dove/ takes shelter under the wing/ of the raven to keep dry”). In the second and third stanzas, the poet asks herself why she lies to the child by allowing oversimplified fairy-tale values to seem real when she knows that one day Jenny will have to live in the adult world and “live with power/ and honor circumstance.” In the fourth and final stanza, however, the poet recognizes that the creative power of belief can transform the world and says that she learns this “once more” from the child.

The poem is full of references to magic, including the stories of Snow White (“Death is a small mistake/ there, where the kiss revives”), Cinderella (who had the nearly impossible task of sifting lentils from cinders), Rapunzel (upon whose hair a prince climbed the tower in which she was imprisoned and whose pitying tears cured him after he was blinded), and birds that “speak the truth” (found in many fairy tales). In this magical world, life is divided into “kingdoms of black and white,” both commanded by the mind; in the adult world, however, the “foxes” and “wolves” are gray and so are the values, and the mind must cope with power and circumstance outside the self. The conflict between childhood and adult views of the world and the conflict within the poet-as-mother about what she should teach the child creates and sustains tension throughout the poem. The recognition of this conflict allows transcendence of it at the end to become a credible answer to the question.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

The imagery of the poem is vivid and physical: “you shoulder the crow on your left,/ the snowbird on your right.” At the same time, imagery of equal intensity evokes scene after scene from fairy tales. Common metaphors (clichés) in this poem show how deeply fairy tales have become ingrained in everyday life. The reader is led to see the gray foxes and wolves not only in their metaphorical senses of clever (foxes) and devouring (wolves) people and not only as a mixture of good and bad (gray) but also as actual gray-haired businesspeople and politicians negotiating and making compromises.

When read aloud, the poem sounds like a ballad, yet the balladlike rhyme and rhythm are not arranged visually in traditional four-line stanzas; rather, they are set into four long stanzas: The first and fourth are of fourteen lines each, suggesting the fourteen-line sonnet, a reflective form that traditionally poses and then answers a question. Like the sonnet, this poem asks and answers a question. Unlike the sonnet, the question is not asked until the second stanza and is answered in the fourth and final stanza. The second and third stanzas have nine lines each. This symmetrical arrangement of stanzas further reinforces the idea of an ordered world. The progression of the poem is not narrative like a ballad but is an argument that makes use of ballad meter and rhyme to reinforce one side of the argument. As long as the poem deals with the magical and with the belief that everything is simple, the lines are end-stopped (their thought does not carry over to the following line) or the rhyme and meter themselves compel the stop: “gray foxes and gray wolves/ bargain eye to eye,/ and the amazing dove/ takes shelter under the wing/ of the raven to keep dry.”

When the poet begins to recognize that the child’s “truthful eyes” and “keen, attentive stare/ endow the vacuous slut/ with royalty,” the lines spill over onto the next lines; then the form returns to the more structured end-stopped lines, even though the poem has shifted to include the idea of a less simple adult world. The rhymes begin with true rhyme (white/right, through/roo-coo), followed by slant (consonant) rhyme (wolves/dove, innocence/circumstance) and assonant (vowel) rhyme (climb/binds, is/insist/bliss), eventually returning to true rhyme (see/key/be). This variation would also be found in a ballad. In this poem, the variation helps to prevent a sing-song effect, and the return to true rhyme reinforces acceptance of the magical view.

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Themes