The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Three Floors” is a short formal poem; divided into four rhyming stanzas, it resembles a ballad or hymn. The title suggests the interior of a house and raises the question of what is happening on each floor. The reader is thus led to expect some contrast or tension.

“Three Floors” is written in the past tense, evoking the memories of one specific night. It establishes an immediate emotional context by opening with the word “Mother.” The mother, however, is described only in metaphorical terms as “a crack of light/ and a gray eye peeping.” Instead of seeing or experiencing the mother, the reader is asked to have the visual experience of a small boy who is lying in bed at night, aware of his mother as a physical presence outside the door. There is a sense of intrusion. The “I” of the poem—the small boy speaking—breathes hard, pretending to be asleep. He refuses to acknowledge her or to respond. He will not allow her to pry into his thoughts.

The second stanza of the poem introduces another “floor,” downstairs, beneath the boy’s bedroom. This stanza begins with the word “Sister.” The house contains, at this point, a family. This stanza further expands the possible relationships, because the sister has a fiancé—a “doughboy,” or soldier—who has recently asked her to marry him. The boy listens as she plays the piano, one sound over and over, Warum. This might be the title of a popular tune of the time, but it certainly uses the device of onomatopoeia, reproducing the rumble of the piano as the...

(The entire section is 639 words.)