“Breathless”, which was written by Wilfred Noyce at 21,200 feet, describes the emotional struggles and physical challenges the speaker experienced and overcame while climbing a mountain. And through it, Wilfred Noyce illustrates the theme of man versus nature as well as the correct attitude in achieving goals by emphasising the ambivalence of the speaker toward finishing the climb. This is demonstrated through the poem’s tone, form and structure and the use of imagery respectively.
To begin with, the tone throughout the poem is discouraged and almost desperate, yet conflicted with determination. In line 5-6, “Legs lift-why at all?” suggests that the speaker is feeling hopeless at that moment since he is having a hard time climbing up the mountain as described in line 1-2, “Heart aches, lungs pant”. However, in line 19-20, “don’t look up, till journey’s done” and in line 29-31 “Go on” and “don’t look up” indicate the strong determination in the speaker to finish his journey on the mountain. The speaker is commanding himself to carry on, even though he would love to take flat steps instead as showed in line 11-12, “a flat step is holiday”. The determination to “conquer” nature is expressed here. On top of that, the poet is trying to relate this to people’s daily lives: just like how the speaker struggled with finishing his climb, people experience hardships and temptations throughout life, and it is perseverance and self-discipline that lead them to reaching their goals.
Secondly, the structure and form of the poem portrayed the level of difficulty of the climb to the speaker. The outline of the poem is not regular or smooth, depicting the rugged and twisty road the speaker is climbing on, and furthermore all the different problems people face in their lives. There is also no stanza, which means the lines are all alined, without any gaps in between, just like the continuous climb the speaker is doing, and the unceasing challenges in people’s lives.
Moreover, the lines are short, some chopped off in the middle (caesura), and the words are short with little syllables. This imitates the ragged breath, steady, fast heartbeat and small footsteps of the speaker while climbing up the mountain, and also the intense atmosphere while doing it (since he is confronting with the edge every moment). And more importantly, it is written in such way so when readers read the poem out quickly, they will feel breathless as well, just like the speaker does in the poem. In addition, for most of the lines in the poem, the rhyme scheme of ABCB is adopted, like how line 2, “pant” rhymes with line 4, “scant”, but line 1 and line 2 don’t. This is to imitate the repeating process of the speaker putting his feet forward one by one, as well as his pounding heart and panting lungs.
Besides, this poem is written in free verse, which means it does not have a fixed pattern of meter or rhyme. During the middle of the poem-“Grind breath/ once more then on; don’t look up till journey’s done”, it is where the ABCB rhyme scheme adopted so far breaks down. This indicates that the speaker is really breaking down at that point, losing hope, but also finding the flicker of determination (since he said “don’t look up till journey’s done”), contrastingly. The idea of free verse is to provide a sense of roughness of the climb and losing breath during the climb in the poem. Finally, a circular structure is used in this poem as well.
“Heart aches, lungs pant/ dry air/ sorry,scant.” appeared at the beginning of the poem, and so in the end of it. This is to emphasise the physical pain the speaker is going through climbing the mountain, also the greatness of the mountain, since it is able to “oppress” the speaker. In overall, the structure and form of the poem helped intensify the feeling of exhausted and despair, and mostly, breathless, showing how weak and vulnerable human being is to nature. In the meantime, this parallels to the fact that the journeys that people choose to embark on is often hard and full of challenges.
Thirdly, the imagery created by Wilfred Noyce in the poem, again, pictures how challenging the speaker’s climb is. The senses auditory, taste and smell do not apply since the speaker is climbing a mountain. The imagery of a long, difficult and vague journey ahead is depicted by the things the speaker sees: “loose drift, heavy fall”, “the journey ahead” and “glasses dim”. The imagery of close to falling/fainting is created by what the speaker feels: heart aching, lungs panting, dry air, prodding the snow, grinding breath, hand wrenching, limb faltering, a slack throat and heart beating.
Then, the imagery of depression and wanting to give up is created by harsh, dynamic or monosyllabic words like “grind”, “wrench”. It also creates the sound effectApart from that, the speaker describes the feelings of his different body parts separately, one by one, as if they were separate, or falling apart. These imagery emphasise how desperate the speaker is while climbing the mountain, the same thing a lot of people feel while confronting challenges in their lives.
In conclusion, Wilfred Noyce wrote this poem to contrast the greatness of the nature and the weakness of human, as well as how people should be persistent and persevering when facing depressing challenges in life. He conveyed his message by using mainly the tone, form and structure and use of imagery in the poem. Ultimately this is all intended to create the effect of breathlessness to the reader, and it is very effective.
Courtney from Study Moose
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