Commentary: ‘A Day on the River’ by Vernon Scannell (Part 1)

Scannell develops an image of the river as illustrated through a child’s perspective, employing a shift in tone to demonstrate a contradictory portrayal of the river in an attempt to deliver a wider message of growth and maturation through the fluid portrayal of the river. By employing an adult narrative reminiscing about his youth alongside a river, Scannell foregrounds a wider theme of maturation through a gradual shift in his description of the river, as a result conveying an idea of remembrance and the loss of an innocent childhood.

The title ‘A Day on the River’ demonstrates a sense of simplicity, as if the event was taken from a diary of a child describing his day on the river. The title conveys the idea that the poem was written through a child’s perspective, but narrated through an adult reminiscing and attempting to capture a sense of innocence in his childhood, reinforcing a nostalgic tone along with the idea of remembrance.

The river is first associated with warmth and vitality, and its intimacy with humanity is expressed through an extended metaphor of a dog as shown through ‘friendly as a dog’ and ‘licked the hand with cool and gentle tongue’, demonstrating a sense of friendliness and warmth as the persona reflects on his childhood. Dogs are also symbolic of domestic life, signifying faithfulness and protection, hence developing the image of the river in a positive light, indicating an idea of domestic warmth and protection provided by the river. Zoomorphism is also employed by Scannell to give the river the animalistic behaviour of a dog to further accentuate an idea of light-hearted playfulness of the river along with the persona himself during his youth, demonstrating an idea of remembrance and a sense of innocence captured within a young child. Sibilance in the line ‘This was summer’s self to any child’, further indicates a calmness and softness of the river, which reflects upon a warm and peaceful image of the persona’s childhood, again conveying an idea of innocence of the river itself and of youth.

In addition to its warmth, vitality is accentuated to foreground a light-hearted tone in the first stanza, which is illustrated by the onomatopoeia in ‘bubbling birdsong’ and ‘plop and suck’. Plosive consonants of ‘b’ and ‘d’ is used in the alliteration ‘bubbling birdsong’ and ‘dim deliberations’ to create an auditory effect, which reinforces a sense of vitality and life brought about by the atmosphere around the river. Life is further developed in the image of the parasites, whom the river seemed to ‘share [its] delight’ in. Parasites usually have negative connotations of decay and disease, yet the persona portrays an idea of harmony of the parasites with the river, which again reinforces the vitality of all living creatures with a sense of peace coexisting with the river. Harmony is also accentuated by the internal rhyme accompanied by the auditory imagery of ‘Ukuleles twanged and ladies sang’, demonstrating a harmonizing between the inanimate objects of the river and the ukuleles and humanity through the internal rhyme of ‘twanged’ and ‘sang’. This sense of comfort and harmony is then intensified by ‘Dear river, comforting more than the trailing hand’, demonstrating the persona’s recalling of how the river has comforted him not only physical state, but also his emotional and psychological state, which again intensifies the idea of comfort and warmth stemming from the persona’s childhood and his experience with the river during his youth, hence demonstrating a light-hearted tone of innocence and contentment of childhood.

Featured image by barnyz., available under Non-commercial-NoDervis 2.0 licence

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