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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

MERCY, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

"The Mercy" is a poem by Philip Levine, first published in his collection "1933" in 1974. The poem is inspired by Levine's time working on the assembly line at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory in Detroit, and explores the theme of the struggle of the working class.


 "The Mercy" begins with the narrator describing the factory in which he works and the long hours of hard labor. He then imagines a day when he is able to escape and take a walk by the river, where he encounters a fisherman who catches a large fish. The narrator is moved by the fisherman's mercy towards the fish, and reflects on the power of mercy in a world full of violence and cruelty. He wonders if he will ever be able to show the same kind of mercy to his fellow human beings.

Poetic Elements:

  • Form: The poem is written in free verse with irregular line lengths and no consistent rhyme scheme.
  • Imagery: Levine uses vivid imagery throughout the poem to create a sense of the factory environment and the natural world outside of it, such as "The air smells sooty with thirst" and "The river turns on itself / endlessly folding and unfolding its shirt / as the barges pass through all eternity".
  • Symbolism: The fisherman and the fish represent the themes of mercy and compassion that are central to the poem. The fisherman's actions towards the fish inspire the narrator to consider his own capacity for mercy towards others.
  • Tone: The tone of the poem is contemplative and reflective, with a sense of longing for a better world.


"The Mercy" is a powerful exploration of the struggle of the working class and the potential for mercy and compassion in a world full of violence and cruelty. Levine's use of vivid imagery and symbolism, combined with the contemplative tone, create a poignant and memorable poem that reflects on the human condition.

Poem Snippet:

Some of us come to the work bitter and angry,
as if betrayed by a friend or God. Some of us come
to the work as if we were leaving it,
and the work forever falling away behind us.

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