‘Somewhat Unravelled’ by Jo Shapcott is a poem which explores growing old and the deterioration of the mind as a result of dementia, and the corresponding impact this has both on an individual and those around them. Shapcott is an acclaimed poet who has won a whole range of awards, such as the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Poetry Prize. ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ is part of her 2010 collection ‘From of Mutability’ which explored the concept of change, in the body, world, and relationships. It won the Costa Book of the Year award.
This poem is a sample poem provided by Edexcel as part of their A Level English Literature course. This means that you won’t be examined on this poem, but may use it in class for practice. Click here to see all the prescribed poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection.
It is recommended that you use this analysis to support your learning after you have used the poem in lessons and assessments. Always aim to use your own ideas and skills when writing essays for your teachers. Click here to view Interpreture’s list of ‘Poems of the Decade’ Example Questions which you could use instead.
Interpreture gives ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ a difficulty rating of 3, meaning that it is deemed to be of average difficulty. While the poem can seem daunting at first due to the large single stanza, there are a wide variety of structure and language techniques to analyse, and the meaning is relatively clear, allowing for a wide variety of comparisons with other poems.
The title of the poem helps create a range of ideas for a reader associated with the concept of decline and damage as a result of the use of “unravelled”. However, some readers may interpret an element of humour due to the use of “somewhat” which makes the situation sound less serious, and perhaps more approachable as it suggests that this is not a situation which poses immediate risk or harm to anything or anyone. That said, “somewhat” is also interesting because it indicates that there is likely to be further ‘unravelling’ in the future, creating a feeling of concern and apprehension.
‘Somewhat Unravelled’ has a structure which could be seen as going against the very idea of being ‘Unravelled’, due to the presentation of the poem on a page. The single stanza forces a reader to consider the poem as one, rather than being able to split it or ‘unravel’ it into various sections or descriptions. As is the case with other poems such as ‘Effects’ and ‘An Easy Passage’, the single length stanza can feel overwhelming for a reader as there is less opportunity to consider the different descriptions and techniques. For a poem built around the idea of memory and confusion, this is a very effective way to help encourage a reader to consider this feeling, therefore making it more personal and memorable.
However, while the single stanza could initially be assumed as rigid, there is actually a range of flexibility when the line and sentence lengths are considered. The variation of these two elements, and the frequent use of enjambment at unexpected times, helps to further create confusion and disorientation for a reader. This not only further helps to emphasise with the narrator’s Auntie, but also for the narrator who is having to deal with and understand the situation first hand. This would be particularly noticeable if the poem were to be read aloud, as the unpredictability would make it more challenging for a reader to know when to take a breath, potentially making a reading more disjointed.
There is no rhyme scheme in ‘Somewhat Unravelled’, with readers perhaps anticipating this decision from the poet. The inclusion of a rhyme scheme in a poem often is a key factor in creating a rigid and predictable structure, but this would have worked against many of the key themes and ideas in this poem. In addition, the lack of rhyme can be seen to help make the poem feel more ‘story like’ to a reader, combining with the dialogue to create a highly personal and memorable piece of literature.
While there are various aspects of the structure that can make the poem confusing, the use of various semantic fields help to organise ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ into different sections. For example, the poem opens with consideration of domestic words such as “kettle”, “tea” and “crossword”, before transitioning onto ideas of travel and transition with “cruises” and “furniture-walk”. After this, there is a transition to food with “eating” and “fruit” and finally to weather and the natural world with “rain” “storms” and “flower”. Without these semantic fields and sections of the poem, it could be argued that it would be too difficult to follow and meaning would be lost. As such, the inclusion helps to guide a reader while still showing the confusion the Auntie faces.
Another technique which helps to highlight the confusion of both the narrator and their Auntie is the repeated use of questions, and the overall questioning tone in the poem. This is introduced almost immediately into the poem, with the second line ending in “help me, where is the kettle?”. Some readers may take note of the somewhat odd combination between “help me” and asking where a kettle is, as the desire for urgent help is normally for something less ordinary. As such, this would be an effective way at showing how life for the Auntie is no longer ‘ordinary’ due to the health challenges she faces. It also is likely to be a very effective way at creating empathy, particularly as the frequent need for help and assistance can be seen as childlike.
As the poem continues, there is a gradual transition from frequent use of “I” and “you”, to predominantly “you” in the final half of the poem. This could be interpreted as highlighting the transition towards age and eventual death, showing how the concept is still distant for the narrator personally, but present for their Auntie. In the final couple of lines of the poem there is the inclusion of “we”, helping to add a sentimental and comforting tone to the end of the poem.
“our cruises on the stair lift”
This humorous line, arguably an example of bathos, helps to demonstrate the close connection between the narrator and their Auntie, and the overall caring and sentimental tone of the poem. This line also fits into the travel and transition semantic field with the use of “cruises”, showing how the Auntie’s physical and mental deterioration has resulted in this everyday occurrence being one of the most eventful things to take place.
“I say littlest auntie, my very little auntie”
A strong tone of consideration and care is also present in this line, but it also highlights the Auntie’s fragility by showing her as very small; both mentally and physically as she has aged.
“come with me and rootle in the earth”
The Auntie’s speech at the end of the poem includes this phrase, showing a degree of awareness of her deterioration and impending passing. The concept of returning to nature and earth could be interpreted as relating to the idea of life cycles, and the natural ageing process.
‘Somewhat Unravelled’ Key Themes
- Family: The close bond between family members is explored throughout ‘Somewhat Unravelled’, particularly through recalling shared experiences and memories. It also highlights the pain of seeing the deterioration of a loved one, and the compassion this generates.
- Power: The Auntie’s decline in power is notable, with a full range of examples showing how she is no longer able to do things (both mentally or physically) in the same way she used to, particularly as she gets closer to death.
- Language and Truth: The varied use of language and confusing way of communicating ideas shows the power of language and the way it impacts an individual. Various descriptions are used to communicate meaning, such as the concept of death, in ways which are less forthright and direct.
Quick Focus Questions
- How can the use of “I”, “we” and “you” be seen as showing varying degrees of power throughout the poem?
- Why is the lack of rhyme an important aspect of this poem?
- How is bathos used to make ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ more memorable for a reader?
‘Somewhat Unravelled’ is a great poem to use as practice for students who can feel overwhelmed when they are presented with a long poem in the form of a single stanza. These kinds of poems can often be daunting to try and start analysing, particularly in exam conditions, so building skills now is an excellent idea. There are a range of examined poems that would be good for comparison with this poem, such as ‘An Easy Passage’ due to the similar structure, ‘On Her Blindness’ for the similar ideas explored, or for a particular challenge ‘Out of the Bag’ or ‘Material’ could be compared for the consideration of family and change.