From the Journal of a Disappointed Man – Poem Analysis

‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ is a poem by Andrew Motion which considers the role of men within society, and interactions between men based on their different livelihoods and perspectives.  Motion is an English poet, who was previously the UK’s Poet Laurette between 1999 and 2009.  He focuses on his aim to “write in clear language” (a quality which can be seen in this poem), while his combination of lyrical and narrative aspects in his poems have helped him to become a very well known and successful.  Andrew Motion also founded The Poetry Archive which is an excellent resource for studying poetry.

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This poem is part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, meaning that it is important to study, understand and revise this poem. This poem was a named poem in the 2018 AS Level Exam.  Click here to see all the prescribed poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection.

From the Journal of a Disappointed Man - Poem Analysis

Interpreture gives ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ a difficulty rating of 3, meaning that it is deemed to be of average difficulty. The difficulty is spread relatively evenly throughout the different aspects of the poem, with the most challenging element for students likely to be the language due the overall lack of figurative language devices.

‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’

The reference to a “Journal” within the title of the poem helps to make it seem more personal, and a reader may interpret this as also indicating that ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ feelings are being recounted rather than something which has been filtered or adjusted, as would more likely be the case in other forms of literature.  Similarly, “From” helps to make the poem feel as if it is a direct address to a reader, even to the extent of being a letter.  However, this personal element contrasts with the anonymity indicated by “man” which would encourage a reader to consider this perspective as being shared by many people, not just one individual.  “Disappointed” being a four syllable word would be very noticeable to a reader, making them question the choice of a seemingly ordinary emotion, and curious as to why the man would be feeling this way.

From the Journal of a Disappointed Man - Poem Analysis

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Poem Structure

The overall structure of ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ is very repetitive, with a consistent layout of four line stanzas (a total of eleven are in the poem) along with even line lengths, which gives the visual impression of solid blocks and chunks of text. Some readers may see this as a link to the traditional association between masculinity and strength, with this layout demonstrating this quality through its consistency and regular shape. This could be deemed as contrasting against a more flowing structure in other poems, which could be seen as more feminine. Alternatively a reader may interpret a stronger link with the idea of cycles in society, perhaps considering the way that individuals conform to the societal expectations rather than showing elements of individuality.

As a contrast to the regular stanza layout and line length, enjambment is used to bring diversity to the pace of the poem. Most stanzas conclude with terminal caesura in the form of an end-stopped line, however in the beginning of the poem there are a couple of exceptions, allowing ideas and imagery to continue on to the next stanza.  This makes the imagery more effective due to it being uninterrupted for longer, and could be seen as developing a ‘story-like’ setting of the scene.  However, a reader may also see this as deliberate simplification of the poem, designed to make the overall presentation more blunt and realistic, particularly for this recount of manual labour (rather than something more artistic and creative, for which a reader may anticipate a more developed and creative use of language and structure).

Similarly, the varied use punctuation of the poem has a significant impact on the rhythm and pace.  For example, the first stanza has many commas as part of a list, whereas the second stanza introduces semi-colons too. Then by the third stanza, there are also hyphens and the introduction of speech.  The reader may be surprised to see this variety of punctuation in the poem when contrasted against the arguably simple stanza structure, but may interpret this as Motion considering the ways in which the external presentation of masculinity may differ to the internal thoughts and experiences, and that while on the outside there may be the appearance of conformity, this is not the same internally.

Poetic Techniques

There is a persistent use of contrasting imagery and ideas in the poem, which helps to create an interesting shift in perspective so as to help identify the onlooker as different to the other men being observed.  For example, the workers are performing a practical action, in contrast to the more intellectual thoughts of the onlooker.  This could be interpreted as forming an ‘us versus them’ perspective which could be understood as referencing the societal expectations for men, arguably criticising hyper-masculine imagery by highlighting individuality.

The personal tone and voice of the poem can also be seen as an effective technique, with the use of “I” and personal observations helping to create a greater sense of being for the narrator, even to the extent of them becoming a ‘character’ as part of a mini story.  This is in keeping with some interpretations of the title which see the narrator as the writing their journal based on these observations, although the overall personal tone would still be effective even if a reader was not considering it in relation to the title.  Interestingly there appears to be a distance between the descriptions of “men” and the personal “I” which could be interpreted as the narrator not feeling a part of this ‘type’ of man (if the narrator is a man).

Plosives are also a key part of this poem, which help to emphasise the masculine tone and elements.  This technique is mainly achieved through the use of words beginning with ‘b’ and ‘p’ such as “pulleys” “powerful” and “baffled”.  The ‘p’ plosive is voiceless, meaning that the vocal cords do not vibrate when making the sound, and as such could be seen as more effective at creating a consistently strong sound than the voiced ‘b’ sound.

Important Lines

“I discovered these men”

The use of “discovered” for this quotation is interesting because it gives the impression that there has been some sort of scientific discovery, perhaps showing another form of contrast through science and education versus manual labour.  It also further emphasises the sense that the narrator does not feel part of the other group of men, once again raising questions regarding the societal expectations of men.

“could go on swinging until the crack of Doom”

This phrase is a reference to the Christian day of judgement, said to be a ‘blast of trumpets’ which signals the end of the world.  As such, this could be seen as an exploration of eternity and power within the world, and perhaps the way that the actions of men (or the actions of mankind as a whole) interact and influence the world.  However, it is important to consider that many readers may not understand this reference, and as such there could be a wide variety of other interpretations that may or may not be effective.

“gaze down like a mystic”

This is one of the few examples of figurative language in ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ which inevitably makes this description more noticeable.  To be a ‘mystic’ is linked to the idea of mysticism, a belief of ancient origins and how an individual can become one with God or ‘The Absolute’.  The word can also be interpreted as linking ideas of an altered state of consciousness or the attainment of insight, which may be interesting for a reader because it applies ideas of knowledge and education onto the workers. Up until this point in the poem, those ideas had been reserved for the onlooker, so this shift would be effective.

‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ Key Themes

  • Work: ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ is one of the few poems within the Poems of the Decade Anthology which has a key theme of work. There is direct consideration of how work can impact an individual, and also the way that the type of work can be seen and understood by others.
  • Gender: There is a strong focus on ideas of masculinity in the poem, through a variety of language techniques and structural techniques, which make a reader consider their ideas of masculinity and how different men may see themselves.
  • Society and Culture: There are overarching considerations of society through the exploration of masculinity, particularly in the way that Motion encourages a reader to consider views of masculinity and how society can be seen to expect certain behaviours.

Quick Focus Questions

  1. What impact does the general lack of figurative language have on a reader?
  2. Is the title ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ more or less effective depending on a reader’s understanding of the narrator? Explain your point of view, with links to the poem.
  3. Does Motion provide a ‘satisfying’ ending to the poem?  How is this effective for a reader?

To a certain extent, the lack of typical figurative techniques in ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ can be seen as making it much more difficult to analyse, but at the same time there are still a variety of techniques that have been used, which could create a good opportunity for you to show an examiner more interesting and creative ideas in your work.  It is also a great poem for the consideration of masculinity and work, perhaps in a comparison with ‘Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass’ or ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’, and the various interpretations and certain degree of ambiguity mean that there could be a lot of flexibility to answer a whole range of questions.

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1 Comment

Thanks for this :)

Just wanted to add that this poem could also be interpreted as a loose extended metaphor for the experience of writer’s block. You could see the narrator and the working men as actually being two elements of the same person: the educated voice of the narrator representing the conscious mind – which is full of ideas, intellectual and introspective – and the working men representing the murkiness and abstract nature of the subconscious mind. An inability to reconcile these two parts of the narrator’s identity leads to a mental block and a lack of inspiration and action (symbolised by the men’s failure to move the pile.)

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