‘The Rest’ is a very striking and emotional poem. On the first reading it puts the reader into suspense. Literally, it may seem like the poet is just watching a woman walk surrounded by ‘trees’ and ‘grasses.’ It may seem bland and emotionless, but symbolically the poet gives us an insight into the theme of eternal ‘rest’ or death. In this third person narrative, the poet does not disclose anything about the woman, even her identity. The poet also brings out the inability of the audience to sympathize and understand what the woman is going through as they belong to the living world and have no connection with death or the dead. There is complete disconnection between the audience and the woman. This is brought out in the very first line of the poem;
‘The rest of us watch from beyond the fence’
The fence is like a boundary between the audience and the woman, signifying the gap between the living and the dead. In this poem the audience in unable to understand what the woman is going through as they ‘know nothing.’ They are not capable of understanding the actions of the woman. This is evident in the following;
‘we know it is not a language we know
yet. We can see her clearly
but for her it is running in black smoke’
They have never experienced the suffering the woman is going through, so they do not understand the language of it and cannot decipher the actions of the woman. In the next line the poet juxtaposes two contrasting ideas. She talks about how the audience can see her clearly even though she is running into something as unclear as ‘black smoke’. The colour black symbolizes the tormenting and eerie phase of death the woman is entering. This line also brings a gloomy and dark imagery to the reader. It also shows the complete detachment between the audience and the woman.
The setting of the poem is ‘green’ and full of ‘trees’ and ‘grapes’. This bright setting helps the reader to get a clearer picture of the contrast between this dazzling side of the ‘fence’ and the ghastly, depressing side of death. Also it is ironic that the woman is dieing and the poet says the grasses were healthy ‘at this time of the year.’ The poet is probably describing spring, which is again ironic as the woman is not quite in the ‘spring’ of her life. The poet again talks about her atrocious state comparing it to elements of spring like ‘grapes’ and ‘porridge’;
‘The cluster of cells in her swelling
like porridge boiling, and bursting,
like grapes, we think.
The poet has uses a brilliant simile to describe the manner in which the woman’s cells are gradually decaying. But the words ‘we think’ bring out how the poet is unsure about everything that is happening to the woman. This brings out how it is impossible for any living being to understand death truly unless it happens to them. No matter how much they try ultimately only the woman herself can feel the magnitude of pain she is going through. The audience is genuinely trying to help the woman but their efforts are useless. This is evident in the following;
‘We would like to call something
Out to her. Some form of cheering.
There is pain but no arrival at anything.’
This also signifies how even though death is full of pain and suffering it also puts an end to the entire earthly trauma one faces.
It is remarkable how the poet writes about a problem as severe and disturbing as death in such a simple narrative technique. There is no rhyme scheme and the poet uses very simple language. The poet uses various adjectives, similes and comparisons to describe the grotesque state the woman is going into. The poet says the woman ‘moves with her jagged stride’ into the pain of death. This process of death is compared to a ‘slow race’ to bring out how the pain one goes through always seems like it is never-ending but ultimately it doe come to an end. The poet also compares the ‘explosions in mud’ to the exploding and dieing cells of the woman’s body. The poet uses a lot of bright and nature imagery to bring out a contrast and heighten the darkness of death. The tone of the poem is extremely gloomy and melancholic and devoid of hope. The poet uses long sentences to signify the lengthy course of life on earth. But the poem is also heavily end-stopped signifying that this lengthy process of life does ultimately come to an end.
The poet, very outstandingly, describes the most tormenting moment of the woman’s life (the process of death), by using nature and bright imagery. The poet underlines the concept of how it is impossible to understand the pain one is going through unless one goes through it themselves. Just like living beings can never feel or comprehend the intensity of the process of death. The poet also highlights the concept of how death is unstoppable, no matter how much one may try. Once some one is walking towards the path of death no matter how much one may ‘call something out to her’ or use ‘some form of cheering’, there is no way to return.