What are some of the poetic devices used in "My son, My Executioner" by Donald Hall?


Quick Answer

Donald Hall's "My Son, My Executioner" uses a number of poetic devices, including extended metaphor and juxtaposition. Rhythmically, Hall uses assonance, perfect rhymes and slant rhymes to present images of both harmony and disconnect. The result is a poem which uses both imagery and language to present a theme.

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Full Answer

The poem conveys its message primarily through the use of extended metaphor. The newborn son represents death, or as the title suggests, an executioner. This is shown in multiple lines, but the most obvious use of the metaphor is in stanza 2, line 1: "Sweet death, small son." The juxtaposition of a newborn and death creates a startling image which illustrates the metaphor's meaning. The son's youth exposes the speaker's fear of aging. In fact, the speaker directly references age in stanza 3, thus drawing the reader to the idea.

Additionally, Hall explores the concept of timor mortis, or an ever-present consciousness of mortality, according to an analysis by Poets.org. This is seen in the adult speaker's conception of death, especially in stanza 3: "who seemed to live forever/ observe enduring life in you/ and start to die together." Ending the poem with such a profound, disturbing contemplation of death leaves the reader with a sense of dread. This is in direct opposition to happiness, which is the expected feeling upon the birth of a child. This is also a change from stanza 1 where the speaker says of the child, "...whom my body warms." The obscurity of the syntax in this line contains a double meaning. It literally means the adult is the one warming the child, but upon first reading, it seems as if the child is warming the adult. By the end of the poem, the speaker has moved on from those initial warm feelings to feelings of cold death.

Finally, the rhythm plays a part in the meaning of the poem. Hall does not use a set rhyme scheme, but the poem closely follows an ABAB scheme. However, he mixes this scheme up continuously, especially near the end of the poem. Stanza 1 contains a perfect ABAB scheme: executioner/arms/stir/warms. This goes along with the peaceful image of the stanza. But as the poem moves into a discussion of timor mortis, Hall relies more on assonance, the repetition of similar vowel sounds, and internal or slant rhyme. Stanza 2 rhymes son/hunger, which is an imperfect assonance rhyme. Immortality/decay is another example of slant rhyme within the stanza. Stanza 3 uses the perfect rhyme of five/die, but the rhymes are separated by three lines. The effect of these disjointed rhymes goes along with the content of these stanzas: whereas stanza 1 presented a perfect image of harmony, stanzas 2 and 3 present fear and disconnect. These themes are perfectly mirrored in the language.

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