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Visiting Hour Critical Essay Essay

A poem which explores the feeling of loss is ‘Visiting Hour’ by Norman MacCaig. In this powerful and moving poem, the writer uses techniques such as imagery, symbolism and word choice to effectively grip the reader and keeps them with him throughout the poem.

The poem is set in a hospital as the persona visits a dying relative. It is mostly focused on his walk through the hospital to her ward, and to her bedside. Throughout the poem, the poet explores the themes of death and pain using the emotions and thoughts of the persona.

In the first stanza, the writer uses many techniques to convey the feeling of loss, when he says,

“Combs my nostrils

As they go bobbing along.”

He uses personification in ‘combs’ to suggest the experience is very uncomfortable and painful for the persona. This effectively makes the reader sense the persona’s unease and feel it too. Furthermore, ‘as they go bobbing along’ uses synecdoche to show that he is detaching himself from them because he cannot cope with the emotional loss. Through this the reader sympathises with the persona.

In the second stanza, the writer describes the persona’s encounter with another paitent .

“What seems like a corpse

Is trundled into a lift and vanishes


The word ‘seems’ suggests it is someone who is not yet dead but is lifeless to MacCaig. This tells us he is feeling uneasy to be there but he knows he may have to be with death soon too. The word ‘trundled’ is onomatopoeic and suggests a lack of care and that the hospital staff are treating the patient like they are unimportant. Furthermore, ‘Heavenward’ suggests that the ‘corpse’ is, to MacCaig, going in the lift to be taken to its final destination (Heaven) and not just up to another ward. The words, ‘ corpse’, ‘vanishes’ and ‘heavenward’ all suggest loss as enjambment is used to add tension and emphasise these. This important technique reveals that death and the afterlife are playing on his mind.

The third stanza has an important change of tone in which it chnges from observation to 1st person narrative.

“I will not feel, I will not

Feel, until

I have to.”

The word ‘feel’ underlines that he is aware of his emotional state and ‘until’ explains that he has acceptance over her death. The repetition suggests he is struggling to keep his emotions in check and that it is a ‘mantra’ to prepare himself for what he is about to se. The mood changes to symbolise how his emotions are beginning to run loose. The phrase ‘I have to.’ Further highlights his acceptance of loss. All this establishes that he will be ready to show emotion when she finally passes but he is struggling to contain them.

Stanza four signals the end of the 1st person narrative and highlights to us the persona has regained control. “here and up and down and there” suggests to us that they are too busy to stop and gives us an image of chaos which mirrors that of his emotions. The word, “miraculously” illustrates his admiration for the nurses and the work they do. Furthermore,

“of so much pain, so

So many deaths”

The repetition here stresses how much they have to deal with. This also reinforces how the thought of loss and pain is on his mind.

Stanza five reveals his arrival at his relatives ward. The phrase “Ward 7.” symbolises the finality of both his destination and of life. Metaphors are used repeatedly in this stanza, for example, “in a white cave of forgetfulness” compares her mentally not being there and her being near death with the stereotypical image of angels and the ‘white light/ tunnel’ at the end of life. It is effective in showing us that there is a barrier between them that cannot be reversed. This hints to us that he believes he has lost her already. The phrase “Into an arm wasted” symbolises death and how weak she is. Another metaphor is then used,

“distance shrinks till there is none left

But the distance of pain that neither she nor I can cross.”

This longer sentence is used to echo the distance between them and her pain. The phrase, ‘distance of pain’ is a metaphor used to give an image of the literal distance between them and and the distance of her as she fades further away.

In stanza six, we see the end of visiting hour, and the persona’s loss of control as he is overran with emotion. The phrase, “black figure in her white cave” creates an image of an intruder in her sanctuary. The black and white contrast suggests he is a shadow of his former self and also that he is trying to detach himself. The phrase, “clumsily rises” gives connotations of his state as he is physically affected by his feeling of loss. Furthermore, “swimming waves of a bell” is a metaphor which has connotations of water. This is used to illustrate that he is drowning in the realisation that she is dying. Finally, “fruitless fruits” is an oxymoron used to reinforce that there is no hope or going back, for her.

In conclusion, the poet explores the feeling of loss in ‘Visiting Hour’ by Norman MacCaig. This intelligent and gripping poem uses many techniques- such as imagery, symbolism and word choice- to grip the reader and leave them wanting more. This poem moved me and stayed with me long after I read it.

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