Two Hands Jon Stallworthy Analysis Essay

Born in London, editor, critic, and poet Jon Stallworthy earned his B.Litt and MA at the University of Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Poetry Prize. A reviewer for Critical Quarterly praised his first collection, The Astronomy of Love (1961), with the observation that Stallworthy shows “a gift few poets possess, and which all poets wish for—the ability to strike out a memorable and epigrammatic line which is at once simple and deeply disturbing.” He published numerous volumes of poetry, including Rounding the Horn: Collected Poems (1998), Body Language (2004), and Survivors’ Song: From Maldon to the Somme (2008), as well as a memoir, Singing School: The Making of a Poet (1998). Stallworthy’s poems often employ conventional forms in their sophisticated examinations of war, England, and family.

Stallworthy was one of his generation's most respected editors and critics. He edited Yeats: Last Poems: A Casebook (1968) and has also published critical studies on Yeats, for which he received the M.L. Rosenthal Award. His biography of Wilfred Owen (1974) was honored with the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, the W.H. Smith Literary Award, and the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also edited Owen’s Complete Poems and Fragments (1984) and Henry Reed’s Collected Poems. Stallworthy’s biography Louis MacNeice: A Biography (1995) won the Southern Arts Literature Prize.

Stallworthy edited and coedited numerous anthologies, including The Norton Anthology of Poetry (1996, with Margaret Ferguson and Mary Jo Salter), A Book of Love Poetry (1974), and TheOxford Book of War Poetry (1984, 2014). He cotranslated, with Peter France, Alexandr Blok’s Selected Poems (1970, originally titled The Twelve and Other Poems) and Boris Pasternak’s Selected Poems (1983).

Formerly the poetry editor of Oxford University Press, Stallworthy was a professor of English at the University of Oxford and Cornell University, and a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature. He died in 2014.


The poem “Two Hands” By Jon Stallworthy depicts the angst felt by a son vis-à-vis his more successful father. The title itself suggests that despite being physically similar their personalities are different. We know that the protagonist’s father is a hard working individual from the usage of the word “late.”   The poet uses personification in the line “a pencil nodding stiffly in the hand” to show his perseverance despite having “thirteen times between breakfast and supper” worked dexterously as surgeon denoted by the word “scalpel”. There is also an element of sarcasm in the poem as the poet is commenting on the frequency with which he operates and this also shows the poet’s own sense of inferiority. The poet here uses alliteration in line 1 and 2 to highlight the words “study, sits, stiffly” which brings out the father’s character and uses the same technique in line 3 “that thirteen times” by repeating the letter “t” to create a chatty and colloquial style that continues throughout the poem.
The study where the father works is seen as his refuge but this seems to alienate the protagonist. The poet again personifies the phone as being an instrument that brings distressing “sobbing” news that draws the surgeon from his home repeatedly. The poet has successfully used alliteration in line 5 in the usage of sobbing and sleep to highlight the dangers and emotional challenges of being a surgeon. The “sobbing” could also refer to the poet’s youth as he spent time sobbing without his father who was away at work. The lack of female figures points to the doctor being a single parent. The aura of grief is implied in “sobbing” while “sleep” could symbolize death that the father in his role as a doctor will be familiar with.   The line “The phone sobbed itself to sleep” also points to the successful use of onomatopoeia as seen in “sobbed” and the assonance in the usage of o’s in phone and sobbed adds to the aural imagery of the poem. We are able to visualize the...

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