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Ann Stanford's "The Beating" and Robert Hayden’s "The Whipping"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "The Beating"

The speaker in Ann Stanford's "The Beating" is describing an experience of being brutally beaten. The drama begins to unfold one "blow" at a time, and the first three come quickly, one per line. The poem consists of six unrimed verse paragraphs (versagraphs).

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Beating

The first blow caught me sideways, my jaw
Shifted. The second beat my skull against my
Brain. I raised my arm against the third.
Downward my wrist fell crooked. But the sliding

Flood of sense across the ribs caught in
My lungs. I fell for a long time,
One knee bending. The fourth blow balanced me.
I doubled at the kick against my belly.

The fifth was light. I hardly felt the Sting.
And down, breaking against my side, my
Thighs, my head. My eyes burst closed, my
Mouth the thick blood curds move through. There

Were no more lights. I was flying. The
Wind, the place I lay, the silence.
My call came to a groan. Hands touched
My wrist. Disappeared. Something fell over me.

Now this white room tortures my eye.
The bed too soft to hold my breath,
Slung in plaster, caged in wood.
Shapes surround me.

No blow! No blow!
They only ask the thing I turn
Inside the black ball of my mind,
The one white thought.

Commentary on "The Beating"

Ann Stanford's "The Beating" dramatizes a severe beating: a painful poem to experience. The characters of the poem—the victim and the attacker—are not identified.

First Versagraph: Becoming a Victim

The first blow caught me sideways, my jaw
Shifted. The second beat my skull against my
Brain. I raised my arm against the third.
Downward my wrist fell crooked. But the sliding

The speaker says, "the first blow" was aimed at the side of her head, and it caused her jaw to become dislocated. The second blow came rapidly and "beat my skull against my / Brain." The blows continued one after the other, and the third came with the third line.

The victim lifted her arm in a defensive move, but it was knocked out of the way quickly: "Downward my wrist fell crooked." There is a moment between the third and fourth blows. As her defensive arm was deflected down, she felt a "sliding // Flood of sense," which bleeds into the next versagraph. Her sense of time becomes confused.

Second Versagraph: A Blow by Blow

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Flood of sense across the ribs caught in
My lungs. I fell for a long time,
One knee bending. The fourth blow balanced me.
I doubled at the kick against my belly.

Between the third and fourth blows some time elapses, and the fourth blow does not appear until the third line in the second versagraph. The fourth blow came as she was falling, and it seemed that as she was falling, it took "a long time."

One knee was bending, and as she was going down, the fourth blow came, and unexpectedly that blow "balanced [her]." But suddenly she doubled over as she was kicked in the belly. This kick is not even part of the blow tally.

Third Versagraph: Pressure Mounting in the Scull

The fifth was light. I hardly felt the Sting.
And down, breaking against my side, my
Thighs, my head. My eyes burst closed, my
Mouth the thick blood curds move through. There

Finally, the fifth blow arrived, and it "was light." She says she hardly felt "the / Sting." But the blows kept coming; she stopped counting them and simply suffered them. The blows continued "breaking against my side, my / Thighs, my head."

The victim says, "My eyes burst closed." This oxymoronic claim seems odd: to describe "closing" with the word "burst" which usually refers to "opening."

But the pressure mounting in her skill and throughout her body, no doubt, made it seem that her eyes closed because the eyeballs had burst open. In her mouth she felt blood that was clotting, and she describes the clots as "blood curds."

Fourth Versagraph: Blinded

Were no more lights. I was flying. The
Wind, the place I lay, the silence.
My call came to a groan. Hands touched
My wrist. Disappeared. Something fell over me.

In the fourth versagraph, the speaker could not see any longer, and she described the failure of vision as "no more lights." She was nearly comatose, unable to move but the motionlessness seemed as though she were flying.

She experienced "the Wind" as though she were flying, but she knew she was simply lying there in a pool of blood in her mangled body, and then there was "silence." Trying to call for help, she was only able to "groan."

The speaker finally realizes that someone was there to care for her, probably paramedics. She knew that, "Hands touched / My wrist. Disappeared." And then "something fell over me." The paramedics have placed a blanket over her before they carry her out to the ambulance.

Fifth Versagraph: In the Hospital

Now this white room tortures my eye.
The bed too soft to hold my breath,
Slung in plaster, caged in wood.
Shapes surround me.

In the fifth versagraph, the speaker regained consciousness in the hospital: the brightness hurt her eyes. She was wearing a body cast because of her broken ribs. The bed was soft, and she was relieved to see only medical equipment around her.

Sixth Versagraph: The Healing Process

No blow! No blow!
They only ask the thing I turn
Inside the black ball of my mind,
The one white thought.

In the final versagraph, she realized that she was not being beaten any longer, and she gasped, "No blow! No blow!" The nurses and doctors did not expect anything from her, only that she relax and begin the healing process, which to her at that point seemed to be, "The one white thought."

The drama remains unclear regarding who is being beaten and who is doing the beating. Speculation likely first would consider an abusive husband beating a wife, though, it could also be the reverse. Or it could be a stranger on stranger attack.

When a poet leaves out details, that signals that the important focus of the poem is not on the details left out but on the details included. In this case, the focus and emphasis are on the details of the painful blows that the person being attacked is experiencing.

By identifying the attacker and victim, the emphasis on the attack would likely be lessened.

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden’s "The Whipping"

In Robert Hayden's, "The Whipping," the speaker reports his observations of a woman brutally beating a child but adds a redeeming conclusion that may be unexpected.

Introduction and Text "The Whipping"

In Robert Hayden's, "The Whipping," the speaker reports his observations of a woman brutally beating a child.

Robert Hayden's "The Whipping" consists of six stanzas that dramatize the violent whipping of a boy by an enraged woman. The speaker's wise commentary at the conclusion changes the reader's perspective from the one originally gained from the beginning of the poem.

The Whipping

The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:

My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,

And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

Reading of Hayden's "The Whipping"

Commentary on "The Whipping"

In Robert Hayden's, "The Whipping," the speaker reports his observations of a woman brutally beating a child but adds a redeeming conclusion that may be unexpected.

First Stanza: A Disturbing Event

The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.

The speaker plunges in immediately describing the disturbing event that seems to occur routinely because the speaker says that the neighbor who lives across from the observer and who is elderly is again "whipping the boy."

And as the neighbor lady continues corporally punishing the boy, she loudly condemns the lad testifying so that her neighbors can hear about "her goodness and his wrongs."

Second Stanza: Sad Relationship

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

The next installment of the narration reveals that the woman who habitually "whips" this boy is morbidly obese; the speaker dubs it "crippling fat." But even so, she is able to chase the boy through her flower garden as he stumbles into flowerbeds of "elephant ears" and "zinnias" from where he pleads for the woman to stop hitting him.

The poem never makes it clear that the woman and boy are, if in fact, mother and son, because the act of the whipping is more important than the specifics of their relationship. Also, the speaker may be even be privy to that information.

The speaker refers to the woman as "the old woman," which might imply that she is his grandmother, since she clearly serves as a guardian-parent, but again, the speaker is focusing on the implications of that relationship that result in continued whippings of the boy.

Third Stanza: Out of Control

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:

The speaker then reveals that the woman is repeatedly thwacking the boy with a stick until the stick actually breaks off in her hand. She is trailing him as he shrieks and moves around trying to avoid the whacks.

The speaker then announces that the boy's tears remind him of his own back when he used to take beatings from a parent. Hayden's masterful lines, "His tears are rainy weather / to woundlike memories," serves as segue to his speaker's flashback that is portrayed in the fourth stanza.

Fourth, Fifth Stanzas: An Anguishing Memory

My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,

The speaker then becomes the boy receiving the punishing violence against him from someone he had loved. But the speaker remembers his "head gripped in a bony vise / of knees."

He thrashed about violently trying to free himself from that vise-grip but unable to do so, he continued to endure the pummeling. The speaker divulges that those blows brought to him a fear that was worse than hearing the words slung at him full of hate. And he found that he no longer "knew or loved" that person delivering his beating.

Then suddenly, "Well, it is over now, it is over"—this masterfully crafted line signals that the speaker's own beating is over, and the boy, whom he has been currently observing, is no longer being whipped; thus, the second "it is over" refers to the boy. That boy is now in his own room crying.

Sixth Stanza: Victims Victimizing

And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

The woman of the "crippling fat" has become exhausted from administering this whipping, so she rests her corpulent body against a tree muttering to herself. The speaker assumes that the woman feels "purged" of some lifelong demons that move inside her psyche.

The speaker then offers a remarkable commentary in his brief remark that the woman is "avenged in part for lifelong hidings / she has had to bear." He is implying that the heinous act of beating children is committed by those who have been victims of beatings themselves.

Sympathy for All

While experiencing the poem, the reader will first sympathize with the boy, then additionally with the speaker who was also beaten as a boy.

But then after the completion of the scene and sociological commentary of the speaker, the reader now feels sympathy for all concerned in this drama, even the woman administering the brutal "whipping," whose own demons have continued to haunt and motive her to commit brutal acts again a child.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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