“The Man of Double Deed,” Anonymous


Note: Changes at Slate have removed the memorable discussions of “Classic Poems” that I presented there for several years. The poems themselves and my introductions remain, for those who hunt, but the Fray and Comments texts written by readers are lost.     

Rather than simply mourn that loss (and I do mourn it!) I will be presenting the Classic Poems here on my own Forum, hoping to take part in a new, lively conversation, welcoming a range of readers to respond.  —RP


This anonymous poem exemplifies how poetry can join reason and unreason, method and wildness, so effectively that the opposites become part of a single process. The links and repetitions seem governed partly by rhyme, and partly by some obsessive, hyper-rational formula of causality. As in dreams or some forms of mental illness, the systematic becomes a form of derangement. Here, the erratic movement from thing to thing also feels fateful, and pointed.  Even the sudden introduction of the first person —“When my door began to crack”— feels inevitable and foredoomed, as well as crazy and unanticipated. The doubleness of deed, the doubleness of linked repetitions, the doubleness of couplet rhyme: how can these dual processes resolve themselves? With the disruptive, emphatic, and triple repetition of the final line.

There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
‘Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
‘Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
‘Twas like a bird without a tail;
When the bird began to fly,
‘Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
‘Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
‘Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
‘Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
‘Twas death, and death, and death indeed.


Listen to Robert Pinsky read “The Man of Double Deed.”

102 thoughts on ““The Man of Double Deed,” Anonymous

  1. Pingback: “CLASSIC POEM” DISCUSSIONS RETURN TO SLATE.com | Robert Pinsky Poetry Forum

  2. Un bellísimo poema. Semilla (origen, nacimiento) y muerte. Entre estos dos elementos, se suceden los acontecimientos que parecen caóticos, como caótica parece una vida. Y, sin embargo, detrás de este desorden aparente podemos apreciar que existe una lógica clara, casi matemática, que construye el poema, que construye una vida.

    (I can’t explain this in English: I was a poor student)

    • What you say (if I am reading the Spanish correctly, one poor student to another) concerns how the poem’s rhythm (or suspension) between an apparent chaos and an underlying, as if mathematical, order reflects something true about a human life.

      Thank you!

      • The respondent also brings out the fundamental progression from birth (seed) to death. I don’t recall anyone previously pointing that out…though perhaps I’m just forgetting.

        • I agree, it does seem that duartemanzalvos calls attention to this basic, implicit movement from seed to death. Thanks for your taking part, ahwebber. Hope to hear from you in the next one that I am plotting for February

  3. What a wonderful poem. It reads like a ride down a water slide, fast and wet and wild up until that last splash at the bottom. And, of course, it reminds me of so many of the old folk songs we sang as children: “And if that mockingbird don’t sing” etc. But what I love is the way that at first the images don’t seem to make any sense one against the other. I don’t know if its the “life cycle” or if that matters. When we build the simile, we always look for that incongruous joining of the unlike images to create a new way of looking at the world-like the idea that a boat without a belt would break apart and that breaking would look or feel like the way snow melts and falls away into water. Somehow the mania starts to make sense. And that underlying sense is what causes us to feel the impact of “Twas death, and death, and death indeed”-as if each strong beat of “death” hits with the sound of a fist coming in contact with the soft belly of our own flesh, like hitting that cold pool at the bottom of it all.

    And then I am also reminded of this little ditty immortalized by the late Alan Sherman:

    I gave my love a chicken that had no bone.
    I gave my love a cherry that had no stone.
    I gave my love a baby, and then you see,
    this is what my true love said to me:

    I didn’t mind the chicken
    that had no bone.
    I didn’t mind the cherry
    that had no stone,
    but when you give a baby
    there’s just one thing,
    shouldn’t you give at least
    an engagement ring?

    Have a great day everyone!

    • Ha!
      The song Sherman expertly parodies is more purely a riddle (I think ) than “The Man of Double Deed.” The parenthetical “(I think)” seems necessary, if this is a matter of a lost key, rather than something more open and mysterious.

  4. The image of the eagle and the use of “belt” in reference to a ship made me ask:

    How well would a bird without a tail fly?
    What does this have to do with an eagle or a ship without a “belt”?

    So I take “belt” to refer to a zone like the trade winds that enables sailboats to travel reliably, and I think of the eagle fluttering in place, about to pounce on its prey, rather than flying in a straight direction.

    Of course the transition to a “me” voice toward the end of the poem raises the great “double-ness” of who could be writing the last line, if the narrator is dead. The fact that the words of a great poem live on after the poet has died is another wonderful doubling of the meaning and depth here…as is the anonymity of the writer.

    • Peter Manos, I like what you say about doubleness as the life of the poet’s words enduring after the life of the poet has ended.I agree that anonymity makes that idea more pognant. The trade wind idea is interesting, but as people discuss below, the “belt” was an important part of early steel-clad wooden sailing vessels. As with a bird’s tail, an element in defense against danger or calamity.

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