Sunday, May 22, 2011

charlotte o' neils song

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What the poem is about

· The poem is set on ship bound for a new life in New Zealand.

· Charlotte ONeil looks back to the gruelling life of a general servant which she has left behind her. The words of the song are addressed to her old employer. She remembers all the tasks that were part of her former job.

· She doesnt want to serve anyone any more in the new world, she hopes to find independence.

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· She wonders how her previous employer will cope without her


Isabella Hercus

one of the ships that regularly took British passengers to start a new life in new countries like Canada, South Africa or New Zealand


a floor made of polished wooden blocks

The rich man earns his castle, you said. / The poor deserve the gate

This is a reference to the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, which includes the lines

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly

And ordered their estate.

This is supposed to show that God made people to live in different social classes - some to serve and some to be served.


expensive silver tableware

How the poem is written

Structure and sound

The poem is written in six stanzas of varying lengths. Perhaps the gaps between the stanzas help us to imagine Charlottes thoughts developing. Charlottes mood seems to get more and more confident as the poem goes on.

· Lines 1-14 (stanzas 1-) deal with the past - Charlottes life as a servant.

· Lines 15- 8 (stanzas 4-6) deal with the future - Charlotte lists all the things she wont be doing any more and imagines her former employers coping by themselves.

Because this poem was written to be sung, it has the nearest to a regular beat and rhyming pattern of all the poems in this selection.

If you try beating out the rhythm for yourself, youll discover a pattern of strong beats which drives the poem along, and which is emphasised by the rhymes

I scraped out your grate

and I washed your plate

and I scrubbed till my hands were raw.

Language and imagery

The beat is emphasised in places by

· alliteration - You can bake your bread

· internal rhyme (rhymes which dont come at the end of the line) - You can bake your bread /And make your bed

· repetition - and Ive cleaned your house/and Ive cleaned your clothes

The language in the poem sets up a contrast between two lives - that of the servant, and that of the master and mistress

The master and mistress

· rang the bell

· walked on the parquet floor

· enjoyed a warm fire

The servant

· answered the bell

· polished the parquet floor

· scraped out the grate

Add to these lists all the other contrasts that the poem mentions.

The contrasting images of life in this household are emphasised by the I/You structure of the sentences

You rang your bell and I answered...

How many contrasts of I and you can you find in the poem? Which pair of images in the poem do you feel gives the sharpest sense of the difference between these two lives?

The last line more or less repeats line 0. On the page it is presented as a stanza by itself

and you can open your own front door.

Both things emphasise the line so it creates a triumphant conclusion.

It is interesting that the poem deals with the past and the future, while there is no mention of the present - Charlottes life on board ship.


Do you feel that the poem should be read

· Triumphantly - Charlotte is delighted to have escaped?

· Sorrowfully - Charlotte regrets all the effort she put in to keeping other people happy?

· In a cheeky way - she even calls one of her former employers my dear (line 4), which proves she has no respect for them?

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