Analysis of Poem Variations on the Word Love by Margaret Atwood

Updated on January 15, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Margaret Atwood and A Summary of Variations On The Word Love

Variations On The Word Love is a poem that explores the meaning of the word love. It is split into two contrasting stanzas, each one having a different take on how love manifests in the world of human emotion.

The first stanza concentrates on the public expression of love, from the commercial side of the dating industry for example, to mating and growth in nature. What about glossy tabloid love, ideal love that is dolled up into something it is not?

The second stanza focuses more on the private and personal which also can involve the universal. Being in love brings with it wonder and ecstasy but also can take us to the limits of who we are. It can be a life or death experience.

  • Essentially, the speaker in the poem is striving to understand how the word love has become associated with popular mass culture: magazines, food, lifestyle and so on. The tone is sometimes cynical, the language often figurative.
  • The speaker is also comparing everyday notions of love with the rare experiences one feels when 'in love' with another person.

Margaret Atwood, the best selling Canadian novelist, teacher and campaigner has also published many books of poetry throughout her career. This poem comes from the book True Stories, 1981, and is a companion poem to her Variations On The Word Sleep.

Relationships, gender and inter-personal values have featured prominently in much of her writing. How humans express their love seems to be a specialist subject. These two quotes are revealing:

'The Eskimos had fifty two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love.'

'If I love you, is that a fact or a weapon?'

Variations On The Word Love suggests that, in our modern lives, love is bandied around too much and is devalued as a result. It has become a popular filler-in, a cheap substitute the mass market has taken advantage of.

In the process we dilute and weaken our emotional health by turning love into a commodity, like something we eat, or wear, or exploit to beautify the surface.

On a more personal level, the word love isn't enough for us. We fall in love but have no rational need for it. Love brings with it the unknown, where we discover delights and profound fears.

Atwood's poem contrasts the conscious expression of love with our subconscious - we don't know why we fall in love for example - and leaves the reader to conclude one way or the other.

Love is undoubtedly complex, which is why the ancient Greeks had six variants on a theme, from philia through Eros to philantia, and why we're still trying to find that perfect, unreachable definition.

Variations on the Word Love

This is a word we use to plug
holes with. It's the right size for those warm
blanks in speech, for those red heart-
shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing
like real hearts. Add lace
and you can sell
it. We insert it also in the one empty
space on the printed form
that comes with no instructions. There are whole
magazines with not much in them
but the word love, you can
rub it all over your body and you
can cook with it too. How do we know
it isn't what goes on at the cool
debaucheries of slugs under damp
pieces of cardboard? As for the weed-
seedlings nosing their tough snouts up
among the lettuces, they shout it.
Love! Love! sing the soldiers, raising
their glittering knives in salute.

Then there's the two
of us. This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.
It's not love we don't wish
to fall into, but that fear.
This word is not enough but it will
have to do. It's a single
vowel in this metallic
silence, a mouth that says
O again and again in wonder
and pain, a breath, a finger
grip on a cliffside. You can
hold on or let go.

Analysis of Variations On The Word Love

Variations on the Word Love has two stanzas, 37 lines in total, and is free verse. The fact that there is an informal structure and no rhyme suggests that the subject is hard to pin down, is not easily defined or readily measured.

The speaker is a voice for the many - there is no first person perspective, no personal I - the tone is observational and a little distant.

That first line sets up the whole poem...This is a word we use to plug/holes with. Meaning that the whole of society uses the word love as a temporary solution to problems and issues. There is no judgement on this either way, but the initial tone could be construed as wary and concerned.

This is more of a spokesperson speaker, an authority, someone who has studied the word love and now wants to get the message out there. That first line is dry and implies that the word love has become common and undervalued.

The first stanza continues with this theme - love has been somehow degraded, made into a commercial thing. You can find love in a magazine or online, it's nothing special, it's too be used daily as a stopgap.

And if we humans can apply the word love to the things we get up to at such mundane levels, then why isn't the action of mating slugs also worthy of the word love? Or the new growth of weeds? How far does the definition stretch? Can love be said to exist in the world of nature?

Those last two lines illustrate yet another form of love - love of country and love of leadership. But can a knife be a symbol of love?

The second stanza changes the perspective somewhat, the speaker now looking at a partner, exploring the idea of a true inter-personal kind of love.

The use of language here is interesting as the speaker refers to the actual word love, the single syllable, the four letters, the idea that it is insufficient to save them both from the cliff edge of emotion. Or, that they will make the right choices and avoid the fear.

This poem, not a musical or strongly rhythmical creation, teases and goads the reader. It challenges them to come up with their own version of what love means, and sets out various scenarios that inspire deep thoughts and ruminations.

Love can mean so many different things to different people. Love is often associated with happiness but this poem suggests that this is not always the case, that the word love has shifted meaning and can be applied to mundane life as well as the higher emotions.

© 2019 Andrew Spacey


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