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Poetry and Medicine XIII: Poet unknown

Metaphors for Resilience

I learnt this short poem at school, and although I can still recite it from memory, I have no idea of its title or who wrote it. If anyone can tell me more about it, I would be delighted to know, as the poem has occupied a nook in my mind all my life, contributing to my early appreciation of poetry and my concept of resilience.

I see it as a statement of defiance in the face of forces which wear down, demoralise and destroy.

O do not let the restless sea

The rub and scrub of the wave,

Scour me out and cover me

With sand in a shallow grave.

But may my image like a rock

Scornful of the tide’s attack,

Shift no inch at the green shock

And glisten as the wave springs back.

The even line length, regular rhythm and predictable rhyme pattern make this type of poem, like the lyrics of a song, easier to remember.

Read it aloud, and note the even flow of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Yet in the second-to-last line this rhythm is suddenly disrupted, as though something has struck. Reading aloud also helps the reader to appreciate the repetition of sounds – the hissing of ‘s’s at the end of the first line suggesting the sound of waves, the rhyming within a line of ‘rub’ and ‘scrub,’ the repeated ‘m’s in the fifth line and the ‘sh’ sounds in the seventh line.

The words ‘let’ and ‘may’ in the first lines of each stanza are very similar in meaning, but using ‘let’ sounds better alongside ‘restless,’ whereas ‘may’ in the second stanza is phonetically more compatible with ‘my image’ which follows. When a poet selects words which sound as though they belong together, the result is more musical and aesthetically pleasing, like colours that blend well together in a painting.

But the main strength in this poem lies in the metaphors. The scouring effect of a restless sea can be seen as a metaphor for anything that steadily grinds us down, such as the constant burden of endless patient need, and working in a health system badly in need of reform. When we talk of burnout in our workforce, we are using a different metaphor or figure of speech for the same thing. Becoming slowly buried in sand, and the image of a shallow grave, convey a sense of being terminally overwhelmed.

But the second stanza is far more positive. The narrator is drawn to the image or metaphor of a rock, standing unmoved as the force of each wave’s assault is absorbed, confidently glistening as it springs back.

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