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”5 O’Clock Shadow” by Sir John Betjeman Poetry Analysis

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In Sir John Betjeman’s poem “5 O’clock Shadow”, imagery, figurative language and diction create a complex tone of dejection and hopelessness, revealing the fear of dying alone. From the title and first line, it is evident the speaker is a male and he is forced to stay in the “men’s ward” located in a hospital. It is evening because the poem portrays a sense of departure; from the doctor’s who have left to play golf to the so-called “loving family” who has gone home to enjoy tea and television. The “shadow” as referred to in the title is definitely implying a deeper, figurative meaning and not just the literal 5 O’clock shadow on a man’s face. A shadow can have two different meanings. One is “to cast a gloom or darkness” while the other is “to shelter and protect”. The speaker is left alone and “betrayed” once everyone has left. There is no light to look at or believe in, the only thing left is darkness and solitude, which is what a shadow can represent. It is also ironic that a shadow is meant to provide protection because once the doctors and family members have left; the speaker is left to fend for himself, void of any mental or physical protection.

When Betjeman says the car engines are revving, he has now provided an auditory sense, which enhances the imagery and allows the reader to be placed in the speaker’s position. A car engine “revving” or “starting up” portrays a new beginning. The car must start before it’s allowed to venture on its path. However, because the speaker is trapped in this hospital room, he will never be able to be revved up, or go anywhere outside of those walls. In addition, “changing gears” could refer to the change between life on earth and life after death. Throughout the poem, it is evident that the inevitable awaits the speaker. He is left hopeless, awaiting his death, as everyone else carries on with their daily lives. Soon, he will be changing gears from this tiring, gruesome world, to whatever the afterlife has in store for him. Another meaning for the “changing gears” could be that once the family has left his bedside, they are allowed to morph back into their usual, normal lives, away from the speaker, whom will never get to experience what it’s like to change gears back into a normal life.

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