Featured Poem: On An Unsociable Family by Elizabeth Hands

The Reader’s Learning and Quality Leader, Natalie Kaas Pontoppidan, shares her thoughts on this week’s Featured Poem, On An Unsociable Family by Elizabeth Hands.

I’m re-reading this poem after having spent Christmas with my family, and it makes me reflect on whether we spoke enough? Did we manage to care about the important ‘stuff’ that is going on in all of our lives? Or did it get lost in the exhaustion of preparations and celebrations? I hope that is not the case. Ideally, I would want my family to do the opposite of the family in the poem – to speak, to care, to quarrel and to sometimes ‘even agree’. But deep down I know that is not always the case.

The line:

We all are alone, though at home altogether

is terrifying but nevertheless recognisable to me: you can feel alone in the midst of ‘togetherness’, whether that’s being with your family or with other people in another social setting, and sometimes that can feel even worse than being alone.

However, I find it interesting that there is not an ‘I’ in the poem, only ‘we’. But who is the ‘I’ that views its family from the outside (an often quite frightening thing to do!)? Does he or she always feel this way or is it a momentary feeling – maybe as a part of adolescence? The ‘unanimity’ as well as the ‘all of us know’ make me think that something does, however, seem to be shared? Perhaps caring for loved ones can be shown in the tiniest communication, in shuffling your chair a ‘bit nigher’ or in sharing a ‘silence profound’?

I’d be very interested in hearing other group members’ thoughts on this poem: what do we make of this particular family? Do we know from our own lives when something social in fact feels quite unsociable? And what is the feeling in the very last line:

For to please ourselves, truly, is more than we can

On An Unsociable Family

O what a strange parcel of creatures are we,
Scarce ever to quarrel, or even agree;
We all are alone, though at home altogether,
Except to the fire constrained by the weather;
Then one says, ‘’Tis cold’, which we all of us know,
And with unanimity answer, ‘’Tis so’:
With shrugs and with shivers all look at the fire,
And shuffle ourselves and our chairs a bit nigher;
Then quickly, preceded by silence profound,
A yawn epidemical catches around:
Like social companions we never fall out,
Nor ever care what one another’s about;
To comfort each other is never our plan,
For to please ourselves, truly, is more than we can.

by Elizabeth Hands

Would you like the opportunity to read this or other poems in a Shared Reading group?

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