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The Groundhog

The Groundhog

Have you ever seen a dead animal on the side of the road or while you were walking in the woods? The speaker in "The Groundhog" (1934) has that very experience when he stumbles upon a dead groundhog in the fields. Instead of running away from it, he takes the opportunity to ponder his own mortality and the fate of all living things. Richard Eberhart (1904-2005) uses symbolism, metaphor, simile, and personification to present the themes of death and life in his famous poem "The Groundhog."

"The Groundhog" at a Glance

Written By

Richard Eberhart

Publication Date

1934

Form

Free verse

Meter

Inconsistent

Rhyme Scheme

None

Poetic Devices

Symbolism

Metaphor

Simile

Personification

Allusion

Frequently noted imagery

Golden fields

Groundhog lying dead

Vigorous summer

Maggots

Seething cauldron

Sight of decay

Bony sodden hulk

Bones bleaching in the sunlight

Tone

Mournful, solemn

Key themes

The fragility of life

The certainty of death

Meaning

All living things are connected through life and death. Death is inevitable because life is fragile.

"The Groundhog" Poem by Richard Eberhart

Eberhart first published "The Groundhog" in his poetry collection Listener in 1934. It was met with instant success and would become his most famous poem. "The Groundhog" was later republished in Eberhart's 1942 collection Sound and Idea.

The poem's central focus is on death and the fragility of life. Eberhart witnessed both of these things when he watched his mother die from lung cancer. The young Eberhart was often the person his family relied on to care for his mother as her health worsened. She died when he was 18 and a freshman in college. Eberhart transferred schools and started writing poetry shortly thereafter.

Eberhart is often called a timeless poet because most of his poetry focuses on universal themes like death and the tension between innocence and experience. Although he was alive for almost the entirety of the 20th century, Eberhart's poetry rarely reacted to the historical events happening around him. His poem "The Groundhog" is a perfect example of how Eberhart uses timeless, natural experiences to present his major themes.

"The Groundhog" Poem

Below is Richard Eberhart's poem "The Groundhog" in its entirety.

In June, amid the golden fields,I saw a groundhog lying dead.Dead lay he; my senses shook,And mind outshot our naked frailty.There lowly in the vigorous summerHis form began its senseless change,And made my senses waver dimSeeing nature ferocious in him.Inspecting close maggots' mightAnd seething cauldron of his being, Half with loathing, half with a strange love,I poked him with an angry stick.The fever arose, became a flameAnd Vigour circumscribed the skies,Immense energy in the sun, And through my frame a sunless trembling.My stick had done nor good nor harm.Then stood I silent in the dayWatching the object, as before;And kept my reverence for knowledge Trying for control, to be still,To quell the passion of the blood;Until I had bent down on my kneesPraying for joy in the sight of decay.And so I left; and I returned In Autumn strict of eye, to seeThe sap gone out of the groundhog,But the bony sodden hulk remainedBut the year had lost its meaning,And in intellectual chains I lost both love and loathing,Mured up in the wall of wisdom.Another summer took the fields againMassive and burning, full of life,But when I chanced upon the spot There was only a little hair left,And bones bleaching in the sunlightBeautiful as architecture;I watched them like a geometer,And cut a walking stick from a birch.It has been three years, now.There is no sign of the groundhog.I stood there in the whirling summer,My hand capped a withered heart,And thought of China and of Greece, Of Alexander in his tent;Of Montaigne in his tower,Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament."

"The Groundhog" Poem Summary

While the speaker is walking through the fields in June, he stumbles upon a dead groundhog. The groundhog's body has just started to decompose as maggots eat it away. The speaker begins to think about his own mortality and how fragile life is. He feels unity and love towards the groundhog because they are both animals that will eventually decompose and no longer exist in this world. He also hates the groundhog because it reminds him of his own inevitable death.

The speaker returns to the groundhog three times over the course of three years. When he returns to see the groundhog in Autumn, he notices that it is just the "hulk" of the groundhog's body that remains. The next summer, there is only hair and bones. Three years later, there is nothing left where the groundhog once was. The speaker compares the groundhog to famous people in history whose bodies have all given way to death. He once again considers the fragility of human life.

The Groundhog, Groundhog standing in snow, StudySmarter

The speaker is fascinated by a dead groundhog and the implications of his own mortality, unsplash

"The Groundhog" Poem Analysis

The literary devices in "The Groundhog" work together to establish the mournful, solemn tone of the poem. The speaker uses symbolism, metaphor, simile, and allusion to show that all living things will eventually die. The poem's tone is solemn and mournful because the speaker comes face to face with his own mortality when he witnesses the fragility of another animal. He realizes there is nothing he can do to escape death and that his own life is fleeting.

Symbolism

The groundhog is much more than a large rodent lying dead in the field. In the poem, it functions as a symbol for the inevitable death that awaits all living things. When he sees the groundhog, the speaker must face his own mortality. He notes,

Dead lay he; my senses shook,And mind outshot our naked frailty." (3-4)

The word "our" (4) is very important because it shows that death is a shared experience. It is not limited to one living thing or another, but it is something that everything will eventually succumb to.

The speaker says that he watches the groundhog "Half with loathing, half with a strange love" (11). He feels ambivalence toward the dead animal because he resents that he is doomed to the same fate (as all animals are) but also feels a sense of unity. The groundhog is thus a symbol for all living beings who live fragile, temporal lives.

Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.

Metaphor

The use of metaphor in the poem is disturbing, but it juxtaposes the activity of life with the stillness of death. The speaker compares the groundhog's dead body filled with maggots to a bubbling cauldron:

Inspecting close maggots' mightAnd seething cauldron of his being," (9-10)

Being dead, the groundhog would be still and lifeless. But because it has these other life forms (albeit disgusting ones), the maggots transform a motionless, inactive corpse into an active force. Like a cauldron, there is power and activity, even within the dead animal. The speaker implies that life gives way to death, which gives way to more life as the cycle continues.

Cauldrons were used for cooking in the past, but in the modern world they are more commonly associated with witchcraft. Why do you think Eberhart chose a cauldron specifically to compare to the maggots?

The Groundhog, Steaming cauldron over a fire, StudySmarter

The speaker compares the groundhog's body to a seething cauldron, pixabay

The speaker uses metaphor again later in the poem to compare the groundhog and himself to the life cycle of plants. When he comes back in Autumn, the speaker notices that the animal is mostly decomposed with "The sap gone out of the groundhog" (27). He later says of himself, "My hand capped a withered heart" (44). When young and healthy, plants are full of sap and nutritious liquids that keep them strong. But when they wither due to lack of water, disease, or old age, they are dying. In the same way, both the groundhog and the speaker face the cycle of life.

It is also worth noting that it is specifically the speaker's heart that is withered. Hearts are symbolic of the center of emotion. Because the heart is withered, the speaker has come to terms with his ultimate fate. He still fears death and mourns the loss of life, but he has come to accept it instead of running from it.

Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as

Personification

Personification makes the speaker's vitality come alive. When the speaker is examining the dead groundhog, he is acutely aware that he is alive and the animal is not. He can feel his life source thrumming in his body:

The fever arose, became a flameAnd Vigour circumscribed the skies,Immense energy in the sun, And through my frame a sunless trembling." (13-16)

"Vigour" is personified and capitalized, making it a proper noun and a powerful force. The speaker's vigor is so powerful it competes with the sun's energy. But his body's current power makes his ultimate demise all the more dramatic. Over time, the speaker's vigor will falter and fail, before finally succumbing to death.

Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

Simile

The speaker uses simile to show how the human-made world succumbs to nothing in the face of Time. He says,

And bones bleaching in the sunlightBeautiful as architecture;I watched them like a geometer" (37-39)

The speaker compares the groundhog's bones to human architecture, emphasizing how each are beautiful but temporary. Both the bones and the buildings that humans design will give way and decompose to nothing. He compares his study of the bones to a geometer, a person skilled in geometry. Like a geometers attempt to make sense out of shapes, he studies the bones for answers. In the end, all he finds is a reminder that everything in this life is temporary.

Bones are more often depicted as scary, disturbing, or disgusting than they are beautiful. Why do you think Eberhart chose the word "beautiful" to describe the bones? What effect does the poet's word choice have on the poem?

Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like, as, or than.

The Groundhog, Ancient Roman architecture, StudySmarter

The speaker compares the groundhog's bones to beautiful architecture, unsplash

Allusion

The poem ends with several allusions to famous people and civilizations. This shows that even great, powerful people who once ruled the world are not immune to death. Like the groundhog, they have died, and eventually there will be no trace of them left on earth. The speaker says,

And thought of China and of Greece, Of Alexander in his tent;Of Montaigne in his tower,Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament."

China and Greece were both ancient civilizations that once prospered. Alexander refers to the world conqueror Alexander the Great (356 BCE-323 BCE). Montaigne refers to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), a philosopher. And Saint Theresa refers to Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), a nun and writer.

Alexander the Great was the King of Macedonia in Ancient Greece. He is known for his lengthy military campaign, during which he built one of the largest empires in history. He conquered parts of Asia and Egypt, his empire stretching from the Balkans to India. Alexander the Great had the title of Pharaoh of Egypt, King of Macedonia, and Lord of Asia at the same time. Accounts of his death vary, but he died at the young age of 32 after conquering a large part of the ancient world.

Michel de Montaigne was a philosopher in the French Renaissance. He popularized the essay as a literary genre, using anecdotes and autobiography in his writings. He is most famous for the Middle French phrase ''Que sçay-je?" ("What do I know?"). Montaigne died at the age of 59 after developing an infection that left him unable to talk.

Teresa of Ávila was a Spanish mystic and writer. She became a nun in the Catholic Church and was famous for her work during the Catholic Reformation. She contributed to the Spanish Renaissance through her writing. Many thought that she was wild because her interpretation of church doctrine was more lax than others. She died at the age of 67.

Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic

"The Groundhog" Poem Themes

The main themes in "The Groundhog" are the fragility of life and the certainty of death.

The fragility of life

The speaker feels a sort of kinship with the groundhog because they are united in the fragility of their lives. He realizes that, like the groundhog, his life is delicate. Although he is young and spirited now, the vigor will one day be gone. No matter what he does, the speaker will forever be restricted by the fragile state of life. He witnesses this directly with the groundhog as he watches it decay:

There lowly in the vigorous summer[The groundhog's] form began its senseless change,And made my senses waver dimSeeing nature ferocious in him."

Our physical bodies are powerless against the passage of time because living things are fragile. Like the groundhog whose body succumbs to rot, the human body is susceptible to the force of time.

The certainty of death

While life is fragile, death is inevitable. At the end of the poem, the speaker thinks about all the powerful, intelligent, and pious people that have come before him. But despite their status as influential people, they have all died. He also considers ancient civilizations that once ruled the world. The ancient Greeks and Chinese people defined what life looks like today, but they are long since gone. No matter what the speaker does, he will not be able to escape death.

"The Groundhog" Meaning

"The Groundhog" examines how all living things are connected through life and death. People and groundhogs live completely different lives, but they both will ultimately die, like every other living thing. Even famous people who do important things and change the world while they are alive are not safe from the reaches of death.

Coming to terms with his mortality is hard for the speaker. He both hates and loves the groundhog because its death is a reminder of what will inevitably happen to him. Life is a fragile thing that can be extinguished at any given moment. So while the speaker knows he is healthy and full of life now, he must also accept that death is inevitable. By the end of the poem, he has come to accept death as an inescapable aspect of life. But accepting his own mortality makes the speaker's heart "wither" as he feels defeated and knocked down by this knowledge.

The Groundhog, Human skull on table, StudySmarter

The poem is about mortality and certain death, pixabay

The Groundhog - Key takeaways

  • "The Groundhog" was written by Richard Eberhart.
  • It was published in 1934.
  • In the poem, the speaker encounters a dead groundhog and confronts his own mortality.
  • The main themes are the fragility of life and the certainty of death.
  • The meaning is that all living things are connected through life and death. Death is inevitable because life is fragile.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Groundhog

In "The Groundhog" by Richard Eberhart the speaker finds a dead groundhog in the field. He comes back three times and watches as it decomposes and its physical body gives way to death. 

Richard Eberhart wrote "The Groundhog" in the early 1930s and it was published in 1934. 

The author of "The Groundhog" is the poet Richard Eberhart. 

The tone of the poem "The Groundhog" by Richard Eberhart is mournful and solemn. 

The message of "The Groundhog" is that all living things are connected through life and death. Death is inevitable because life is fragile.  

Final The Groundhog Quiz

Question

Who wrote "The Groundhog"? 

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Answer

"The Groundhog" was written by Richard Eberhart. 

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Question

When was "The Groundhog" published? 

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Answer

It was published in 1934. 

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Question

What is wrong with the groundhog in the poem? 

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Answer

It is dead

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Question

When does the speaker first see the groundhog? 

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Answer

June

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Question

What does the speaker notice about the groundhog's body? 

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Answer

It is decomposing and being eaten by maggots. 

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Question

What is the tone of "The Groundhog"? 

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Answer

Mournful and solemn

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Question

What are the themes in "The Groundhog"?

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Answer

The main themes in "The Groundhog" are the fragility of life and the certainty of death.

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Question

What does the speaker compare to a cauldron? 

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Answer

Maggots

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Question

What happens to the groundhog at the end of the poem? 

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Answer

After three years there is nothing left of it. It completely disappears.

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Question

What effect do the allusions at the end of the poem have? 

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Answer

They are all famous people who impacted the world but who have died. It shows that no matter who you are or what you do, death is inevitable. 

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