He, who navigated with success
the dangerous river of his own birth
once more set forth
on a voyage of discovery
into the land I floated on
but could not touch to claim.
His feet slid on the bank,
the currents took him;
he swirled with ice and trees in the swollen water
and plunged into distant regions,
his head a bathysphere;
through his eyes’ thin glass bubbles
he looked out, reckless adventurer
on a landscape stranger than Uranus
we have all been to and some remember.
There was an accident; the air locked,
he was hung in the river like a heart.
They retrieved the swamped body,
cairn of my plans and future charts,
with poles and hooks
from among the nudging logs.
It was spring, the sun kept shining, the new grass
leapt to solidity;
my hands glistened with details.
After the long trip I was tired of waves.
My foot hit rock. The dreamed sails
I planted him in this country
like a flag.
- This poem is from Atwood’s book The Journals of Susanna Moodie, which loosely follows the life of the 19th century author of Roughing it in the Bush. But the voice of the poem is also very modern in its diction and imagery. Who is the speaker? Moodie? Some version of Atwood? Or is the speaker a stand-in for any mother who has lost a son? What are we to think of her?
- This poem uses the image of a river in a lot of different ways. In the first stanza, it’s “the dangerous river of his own birth,” and then later it’s the literal river in which the son has drowned. Find all of the references to water in the poem. What progression can you see?
- A bathysphere was an early kind of submersible that was used in the 1930s to explore the depths of the ocean. What’s it doing in a poem written in the voice of a woman who died in 1885?
- In the last lines, the speaker declares that she “planted him in this country / like a flag.” How does a flag get planted? For what purpose? How might the speaker believe that her son has been “planted” in this country? What might this “planting” entitle her to?
- How does the speaker seem to you? Is she wracked with grief? Or numb and distant? Resolved or bitter? Try reciting the poem in a highly emotional tone, and then again in a way that is very restrained. Which seems to draw out the poem more effectively?
- You live in Canada. You don’t have to lose a child to “plant your flag” here. Write a poem that shows how you can make a similar claim.
- Most students now think of Margaret Atwood as an established older writer of novels, but she was known first as a poet and critic. Here’s a charged interview with her in 1973, soon after The Journals of Susanna Moodie appeared. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1845001010
- Click here for more information about the bathysphere, and its inventors: https://sites.google.com/site/cwilliambeebe/Home/bathysphere
- An article about Susanna Moodie from Library and Archives Canada: https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/moodie-traill/027013-2100-e.html
- A more thorough article about Susanna Moodie, including discussion of her importance to Atwood’s work: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/susanna-moodie
Other poems about young men dying tragically for art or country:
- Housman on an Athlete: https://poetryinvoice.ca/read/athlete-dying-young
- Yeats on an Irish Airman: https://poetryinvoice.ca/read/irish-airman-foresees-his-death
- Shelley on Keats: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45112/adonais-an-elegy-on-the-death-of-john-keats
- Leopold Senghor: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53352/in-memoriam-56d2328fbbe0e
- Gwendolyn Brooks on de Witt Williams: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43312/of-de-witt-williams-on-his-way-to-lincoln-cemetery
Margaret Atwood, “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” from The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 1969). Copyright © 1969 by Margaret Atwood. Reprinted by permission of O. W. Toad Ltd.
Source: The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English (Oxford University Press, 1983).