“In the Snack Bar,” by Edwin Morgan, is a poem which, through interesting use of language, gives the reader a degree of insight into the less pleasant side of life. This darker side to life is depicted through the character of a disabled, blind and hunchbacked old man. The reader is introduced to the old man firstly from the detached perspective of a spectator who is watching him struggle to his feet from a distance.
However, as the poem progresses, Morgan leads the reader to empathise with the man’s plight by illustrating – in great detail – his relentless struggle of endurance through life, despite finding the most simple, basic human functions an unspeakable effort.
Through clever use of language the poet reveals the painstaking difficulties that the man has to negotiate because of his deformity and disabilities before going on to make a wider comment about humanity at large. The first stanza introduces the old man to the reader from the perspective of an outsider watching him in the snack bar.
We are told that “A cup capsizes along the formica… /A few heads turn in the crowded evening snack-bar/An old man is trying to get to his feet,” giving us the impression that the speaker’s head is also one of those which has turned at the disturbance and who is now staring at the old man struggle. The speaker relates the difficulties that the man encounters in just trying to get to his feet, telling the reader that he “slowly… levers himself up” and that “his hands have no power.
This imparts to the reader immediately the extent of the man’s weakness by highlighting that the most basic of human functions – simply standing up from a seated position – is of a huge effort for him. The reader is then informed that he is “up as far as he can get,” suggesting that he cannot stand fully upright. The meaning of this is made clear in the next line: “The dismal hump/looming over him forces his head down. ” The word choice of “dismal” and “looming” lend an ominous presence to the man’s hunchback and serve to introduce the idea that this deformity imposes wretched limitations on him which affect the quality of his life.
This idea is further entrenched by the word “forces” which tells the reader that he is involuntarily cut off from the world and is lowered to a physically submissive position by being never able to raise his head and thus seeming as though he is forever bowing down to others. The speaker brings the reader a glimpse of some of the more unpleasant, bleaker aspects of human life by first offering a view of the man from a detached perspective: “he stands in his stained beltless garberdine/like a monstrous animal caught in a tent/in some story. The comparison to an animal highlights the extent of his deformity by suggesting that he in some way seems inhuman and without an identity: he is identified by the speaker and, the reader can assume, by the other spectators in the snack-bar, by his hunchbacked appearance alone. The word “monstrous” further adds to this description by suggesting that he is abhorrent and frightening to other people, instilling a sense of horror in them. Indeed, the word brings to mind images of ogres from faerytales “in some story” as though his appearance is so terrible it cannot possibly be real and upholding the notion that he is without a human identity.
Furthermore, the image of an animal being caught in a tent gives the reader insight into the man’s situation, highlighting the loss of dignity that comes with deformity and disability and telling us that he is imprisoned by it, unable to escape his terrible life. The poem goes on to describe in acute detail his slow, perilous journey to the toilet. The words ‘slow’ or ‘slowly’ are repeated seven times in this stanza. This repetition serves to emphasise to the reader the length of time it takes this man to simply walk downstairs: he struggles with the most basic of human functions.
Onomatopoeic words such as ‘crunch’ and ‘hiss’ are used to draw the reader into the old man’s world. Without sight, sounds become extremely important. This stanza is very long and Morgan uses alliterative words, repeating “s” and “sh” sounds which slows the poem down and – again – reinforces to the reader the terrible length of time elapsing in which the old man struggles on. Indeed, “a few yards of floor are like a landscape” to him: a few simple paces for most people are compared to a trek across thousands of miles.
This is yet again reinforced by the repetition of “and slowly we go down, and slowly we go down. ” Morgan depicts this man as physically very weak: he urinates painfully slowly, a “trickle” and he washes “feebly” at the basin. The same technique of repetition is used again for the ascent back up, “he climbs, and steadily enough/he climbs, we climb, he climbs”. The emphasis on the word “climb” slows the poem down, but also subtly informs the reader of the physical, and mental, struggle of this old man.
To climb is to exert oneself, and Morgan’s repetition of this ensures the reader appreciates this. In the final stanza Morgan moves on to comment more widely about disability and human reaction to it. He invites the reader to consider the “embarrassment” and “shame” which accompany such a disability and the reaction which the public will have towards him, regardless. The words “no one sees his face” echo hauntingly. While on a literal level, the poet is merely commenting that the man’s deformity is so large that is physically obscures his face.
However, he is also implying that to others the old man has no identity: he is only seen by others by his deformity and disability, not as a person. Morgan finishes the poem with “Dear Christ, to be born for this! ” which hints at the futileness of living a life with such a poor quality of living; living in a world amongst people who cannot see past the surface to the true person within. In the case of the old man, the true person within has an inner strength and humility that, ironically, contradict the final sentiment about the human condition.
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