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A Contemporary Poem Analysis: The Ode of a Natural Life by John Hansen

Author:

Centfie writes, reads and analyzes poems from a psychological POV. See her book on Amazon: "Piece of Mind: Everyone has an Untold Story."

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I was drawn to this contemporary poem "The Ode of a Natural Life" by its story. I am a fan of classical old poems by dead poets. It is time for a change, though. This is the first poem I have analyzed written by a modern poet known as John Hansen (Jodah.)

Read the full poem: The Ode of a Natural Life

I read it quickly at first only noticing the rhymes and the length. However, the strong themes of the narrative grasped my attention because it is about an innocent man serving a “term” he does not deserve while the real perpetrators walk free.

The more I read it, the more I came to appreciate the poem because I noticed the skill used in this composition. The poet tells so much with very few words, structured and arranged to make it resonate with the collective experience even though written in the perspective of one; a work of art.

Structure

The poem is intentionally styled in stanzaic form. It is made up of 15 quatrains. If it was a book, it would have 15 different chapters, since each stanza has a different storyline.

The prominent punctuation mark the poet uses is the em-dash. It creates a dramatic effect because it elicits a longer pause in the reader and shows a break in thoughts of the speaker i.e. the poem does not flow continuously. It also puts emphasis on specific lines.

They say that I’ll be in here awhile—the term of my natural life (line 1)

It’s an ode of the prison warders, affectionately called “the screws”/Men whose morals are “beyond reproach,” unless worth their while to abuse (line 11&12 )

In some instances, the poet used it to show an abrupt change in thoughts

Other lines use standard punctuation, with periods at the end of a sentence and commas, semi-colon, quotation marks in their grammatically correct positions.

The poem contains regular end rhymes and instances of internal rhymes. The rhyme scheme is AABB CCDD EEFF in that sequence.

The first two lines of stanza five rhyme with lines 1 and 2 of the first stanza as follows: AAHH. There are several other instances of repetitive rhyme: stanza 10, 11, and 14 as HHQQ, RRHH, and VVAA respectively. However, the regular rhyme scheme is interrupted in stanza 13 and 15 that have a distinct rhyme: UUUU and WWWW.

It contains irregular metrical feet made of both stressed and unstressed syllables. The poet is spontaneous with the metrical pattern. There is a mix of both iambs (unstressed-stressed) and trochees (stressed-unstressed.) Although it looks like a closed poem because of the regular rhyme and stanzaic arrangement, the metrical patterns allow the poet to pour out his words spontaneously.

Meaning of the Title and Relevance

“The Ode of a Natural Life” is a relevant title for this poem because the speaker is lamenting about his life as it is, and what it should have been. It should have been a “natural life.” However, his chances of experiencing it have faded because he is in prison for life. I think "ode" here is synonymous with "song."

From the first stanza onwards, it is clear that this is a narrative poem telling the story of a man sentenced to life imprisonment. The story builds up with dialogue, an allegory that thickens the plot, and a cliffhanger at the end.

They say that I’ll be in here awhile—the term of my natural life (line 1)

My natural life is all I ask—for another I took a fall (line 57)

Is this an ode as the title suggests?

An ode is a classical form of poetry that has changed over the years to include more spontaneity in the contemporary world. The basic elements of an ode include: focus on one main theme, intense emotions, lyrical, irregular meter, with a lot of praise for the subject.

In this regard, I think it is more of a ballad. It’s a sad theme, with a uniform stanza pattern, lyrical, and a narrative. In my view, it’s more of a ballad or an elegy more than an ode. I expected the poem to praise “the natural life.”

However, it’s about a man lamenting that he cannot enjoy the natural life because he is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. It’s more of “in memory of” or "elegy for" a natural life.

So this ode’s for those innocent souls, who sat before juries unjust,

Who said, “This man’s guilt can’t be denied—it’s certain for in God we trust.”

— John Hansen

The Characters in the Narrative

The persona is the main character. He is the speaker and the observer in this poem. Other characters are well-developed since the reader can decipher their qualities and significance to the persona.

I think the poet has a strong storytelling skill because with just a few lines of poetry he has been able to make develop all the characters. Each of them is relevant to the story in a way.

The other characters include his wife, his friends, the neighbor, the prison warden, the chaplain, fellow inmates, a guilty inmate (his best friend), his lawyer, and “other innocent souls.”

Atmosphere

Mood

Regretful, morose, hopeful, resigned, lonely, alienated, melancholic, contemplative, nostalgic {of home and his wife}.

Tone

Satirical, idealistic, informal, philosophical, critical, mocking, bitter.

Diction

The atmosphere is influenced by the predominant word choice by the poet. The following words and phrases carry a lot of weight in this poem: “lies I could have told.” lies told against him," natural life, the Lord, God, light, wife, government, mercy, ode, neighborhood, alone, left to brood, gloom, cold.

Also, John Hansen uses the word "gaol" as anarchism alluding to the word choice of the original poem by Henry Lawson, while “shit” is a more contemporary term.

Poetic Devices in Use

The poet applies several literary devices in the poem to make it more entertaining, memorable, and meaningful. The following are the main devices used in the poem.

Allusion

The poem alludes to Henry Lawson's "The Song of a Prison" which is a classical ballad. The plot of the narrative is the same, and sometimes the poet lifts exact words and phrases from the original poem. Consider "The Ode of a Natural Life" to be a parody of Lawson's classical poem.

Other occurrences of allusion are from the Bible and Christian doctrine:

The gaol where the inane are shafted; Hell’s school where the witless are taught; (line 5)
Down the steep and polished-steel staircase, we stumble with no time to dwell, (line 45)
Who said, “This man’s guilt can’t be denied—it’s certain for in God we trust.” (line 54)
The Bible says, “You reap what you sow,” but what did I do for such strife? (line 56)
His nickname in prison, “The Ripper”— his real Christian name is just Steve. (line 20)

Metaphor

The metaphor is figurative language whereby an object represents another, hence having a deeper meaning than what is implied on the surface. For instance, in the following lines, a can refers to the prison cell, Hell's school is the prison, the big fish is a criminal of substance, screws are the prison wardens.

...and now I am stuck in this can. (line 4)
Hell’s school where the witless are taught (line 5)
For the skilled thief is rarely captured and the big fish rarely is caught (line 6)
It’s an ode of the prison warders, affectionately called “the screws”— (line 11)
And we’re greeted by passionless screws (line 44)
...all of the warders are blind (line 21)
plenty of food for thought (line 26)

Personification

Where non-human objects are given human qualities.

The weight of my neighborhood crushing, and forcing me down to the ground. (line 36)

Pallid daylight approaches slowly, replacing the fluorescent light (line 37)

The darkness has gone into hiding, it leaves me exposed to the day (line 39)

Although the neighborhood is made up of humans, as a collective thing it is not able to perform the actions stated. Hence this can qualify both as personification and a metaphor.

Irony

My best friend here’s a decent fellow, he’s another who’s in for life;/But he admits to the crime as charged—he sliced up a pimp with a knife. (lines 17-18)

Ironically, his “best friend here’s a decent fellow” who murdered someone and is guilty of the crime. Yet, the persona is innocent and framed for murder. How can they be best friends? Does he approve of his friend’s previous behavior?

Flashbacking

Since it is a narrative, it makes sense that the persona recollects a life before his current situation. Flashbacking occurs when he remembers how he was arrested at his home while a neighbor watched and the poet takes us back to those past scenes.

He recalls his wife’s homecooked meals as he eats the bad food in the prison

I go through my day in a stupor, pining for my wife’s home cook meals (line 49)

He remembers the money he lent friends that he could otherwise have used now to bail himself out.

On the money that could release me, that I lent to many a friend, (line 29)

In stanza 9 the persona flashes back to the time when he was arrested.

Sarcasm

Sarcasm serves to create a satirical tone when the persona mocks the prison warders, the chaplain, and the lack of food.

It’s an ode of the prison warders, affectionately called “the screws”—/Men whose morals are “beyond reproach,” unless worth their while to abuse. (lines 11,12)

And the clueless Anglican chaplain is the only innocent there. (line 24)
Fifteen long hours with nothing to eat, except plenty of food for thought. (line 26)

Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in words close to each other. Several occurrences of impactful alliteration in the poem. I have italicized the alliterative words.

This ode is for those who were foolish, for I am an innocent man. (line 3)
Found in the wrong place at the wrong time—and now I am stuck in this can. (line 4)

What nobody knows will not hurt them, (line 21)
Consequences, if found out, we know—we’ll be in confinement if caught, (line 25)
We rise at six when the siren sounds, and roll up our blankets and sheets. (line 41)
Then we pace the cell until seven, brain-dead, and with staggering feet. (line 42)
Like the hallowed stairs of our last days, we have been herded down to Hell; (line 46)
I met my lawyer later that day, he told me he’d lodged my appeal. (line 51)

Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive sentences. Italicized the words for learning purposes only.

An ode for the scoundrel's victim, the brunt of convenient blame,/An ode for the man ruined by the lie— it’s heart-breaking, one and the same.../An ode of the suspected persons, where evidence is beyond doubt. (line 7-9)

And bargain for packs of tobacco, under the Lord’s cover of prayer—/And the clueless Anglican chaplain is the only innocent there. (line 23-24)

On the crooks that I should have cheated, and the lies I wish I had told./On the money that could release me, that I lent to many a friend, (line 28-29)

Oxymoron

The prison and the chapel are opposite to what they represent. The same applies to the words "pallid" and "daylight"; "left" and "right"; and "juries unjust."

In the prison chapel each Sunday—we sit in the front and behind. (line 22)

Pallid daylight approaches slowly... (line 37)

And we’re greeted by passionless screws— yelling, “Outside! Quick march! Left, right!’” (line 44)

So this ode’s for those innocent souls, who sat before juries unjust, (line 53)

Polyptoton

The repetition of the same root of the word "screw" in various ways creates a rhythmic and memorable effect in the following stanza:

It’s an ode of the prison warders, affectionately called “the screws”— /...They announce their presence so subtly. By the screw of their keys in the door. /Everyone’s screwed and guilty as charged until they are pardoned for sure. (line 11,13-14)

Ploce

The style of repeating the same word is known in general as ploce and is evident in this poem. Words such as natural life, light, lies, ode are repeated two or more times in the poem. This repetition of words creates emphasis on the special significance of the words in the context.

See the repetition of "beyond" and "ode" in the 3rd stanza. Here it creates the device of mesodiplosis. An exact term referring to the repetition of the same word or words in the middle of consecutive sentences.

An ode of the suspected persons, where evidence is beyond doubt./And of persons beyond suspicion—the real criminals who have clout./It’s an ode of the prison warders, affectionately called “the screws”—/Men whose morals are “beyond reproach,” unless worth their while to abuse.

The Importance of Objects in the Poem

Some objects enhance the literary technique of symbolism. Other objects are descriptors, creating vivid imagery of the events and the characters who come in contact with them.

The objects mentioned in the poem include: screws, paper, a government logo, can, keys, a worn-down pencil, chapel, packs of tobacco, a knife, home, shed, garden, flat grave, printed bars of the window, walls of the cell, the siren, blankets, sheets, cells, cold grits, gravy, and stale bread.

Main Themes

Justice and injustice

The main theme evident from the beginning to the end of the poem is justice and injustice. In stanza one, the speaker introduces the theme by stating he is an innocent man in prison. He is the main character and he laments throughout the poem about his current state and the system of law not serving him justice.

Other themes

Other minor themes include human rights, God, Christianity, loss, mourning, family, friendship, freedom, faith, prejudice, innocence, the plea of guilty, the law, and deception.

Reference

Hansen, J. (2021.) The Ode of a Natural Life. Retrieved from: The Ode of a Natural Life - LetterPile

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Centfie

Comments

Centfie (author) from Kenya on May 15, 2021:

John Hansen, worry not. This is more of an Owlocation-type article. I had no idea you cannot share across similar niche sites. Now I know.

Centfie (author) from Kenya on May 15, 2021:

Thanks a lot Chitrangada Sharan. I am glad to know you found my article useful.

Centfie (author) from Kenya on May 15, 2021:

@ Lorna Lamon

Thank you for your comment. It's one of my favourites by John Hansen too.

Centfie (author) from Kenya on May 15, 2021:

@Brenda Arledge

Thank you for your kind comment. I think this poem is great too.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 14, 2021:

Unfortunately, HubPages have removed the link to this wonderful analysis from my article/poem as they feel the link does not comply with Letterpile standards. If and when this article gets moved to Letterpile also I should be able to add the link back.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 14, 2021:

An impressive and thorough analysis of John's poem! He is a versatile poet, and can compose excellent poems, on any topic!

You have done a wonderful job in this article! I have learnt a lot from your analysis! Thank you for sharing!

Lorna Lamon on May 14, 2021:

This poem is one of my favourites, and your amazing analysis did it justice. John never ceases to amaze me with his versatility and talent - a true poet.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on May 13, 2021:

A great analysis of John Hansen's poem.

You really put a lot of work into this one.

This poem was one of John's best in my opinion but he can write on anything.

Centfie (author) from Kenya on May 13, 2021:

@John Hansen I am glad to know you enjoyed my take on your work. Do keep writing. I have always been your fan. Thanks for linking my post as well.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on May 13, 2021:

Wow! Centfie, What a wonderful tribute to John Hansen and his work -- highly appreciated. John is an inspiration to many of us. Thank you for creating this Beautiful hub

Blessings to you

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 13, 2021:

Wow, Centfie, what can I say? I don’t think I have ever had one of my poems analysed before. I am impressed in the thorough and professional job you did with this. You are right that this is more of a ballad or elegy. I did feel I should have called it “The Ballard of a Natural Life” but I used the word “ode” here and there throughout where didn’t think “ballad” would fit.

You have taught me some terms and meanings I wasn’t even aware of.

Thank you for the link to my poem and I will put a link from my poem to this wonderful article in turn.

Thank you again.

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