"There Was a Man of Double Deed"
The unhinged reason of an anonymous classic.
This anonymous poem exemplifies how poetry can join reason and unreason, method and wildness, so effectively that the opposites become part of a single process. The links and repetitions seem governed partly by rhyme and partly by some obsessive, hyperrational formula of causality. As in dreams or some forms of mental illness, the systematic becomes a form of derangement. Here, the zany yet orderly movement from thing to thing also feels fateful and pointed. Even the sudden introduction of the first person—" 'Twas like a lion at my door"—feels inevitable and foredoomed as well as crazy and unanticipated. The doubleness of deed, the doubleness of linked repetitions, the doubleness of couplet rhyme: How can these dual processes resolve themselves? With the disruptive, emphatic, and triple repetition in the final line.
There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
'Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
'Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
'Twas like a bird without a tail;
When the bird began to fly,
'Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
'Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
'Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
'Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
'Twas death, and death, and death indeed.
Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be participating in the "Poem" Fray this week. Post your questions and comments on "There Was a Man of Double Deed," and he'll respond and participate.
Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.