Slowly Plodding Toward Extinction

The second section in Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems 1965-1975 entitled “from The Animals in That Country” focuses more on her Canadian background than the first section. One theme is that of Canada as wilderness. The title poem begins with the stanza “In that country the animals/ have the faces of people” and ends with “In this country the animals/ have the faces of/animals” suggesting that Canada still has room for wild animals, unlike most modern countries. In “At the Tourist Centre in Boston,” (Do you really think the people in Boston can’t spell Center correctly?) she objects to the mythic country portrayed to Americans to attract them to Canada. Not being Canadian, I wasn’t particularly attracted by this theme, but, having traveled there extensively, I do understand their resentment of America.

My favorite long poem is called “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer” for it seems to describe mankind, not just a pioneer, quite accurately. It begins, “He stood, a point/ on a sheet of green paper/ proclaiming himself the centre.” Of course, this is the way a pioneer must begin, but it also sounds a lot like our description of ourselves as we think of ourselves as the center of the universe and everything must surely revolve around us! The fifth stanza begins, “For many years/ he fished for a great vision,/ dangling the hooks of sown/ roots under the surface/ of the shallow earth./ It was like/enticing whales with a bent/ pin.” The poem concludes, “… the green/ vision, the unnamed/ whale invaded? In this case, the pioneer, like so many others, was defeated by the power of nature. Since we are obviously well beyond that stage, I wonder what “stage of insanities” we must be at, and whether by destroying nature we are not truly defeating ourselves.

My favorite poem in this section also deals with this theme. It’s called “Elegy for the Giant Tortoises:”

Let others pray for the passenger pigeon
the dodo, the whooping crane, the eskimo:
everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the giant tortoises
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can’t quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave travelling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralysed
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed,
our holy and obsolete symbols.

The poem is an elegy, and an elegy is usually a “lament for somebody who has died,” but as far as I know the giant tortoises aren’t yet extinct, though they may well be headed that way as she envisions in this poem. Certainly “on the last day” they will be obsolete and that “event” seems to shape her vision of what will happen.

The imagery she chooses, “plodding,” “small heads pondering/ from side to side” and their “useless armour” makes us see the giant tortoises as they head to some unknown destination, which in this case, unfortunately, turns out to be a museum.

For me, there is both great sadness and great irony in the last part of the poem. On first seeing the “square glass altars” you have the feeling that these magnificent animals are going to being honored, as they should be, but you quickly realize that these ”altars” are really nothing but museum displays, the kind I discussed seeing in San Francisco’s Museum when I was but a small child.

We put them on pedestals, like holy symbols when they’re dead, but they are no longer symbols of living animals. They are dead, and thus, “obsolete,” a brittle, relic of a past that we used to claim was holy but one we are steadily destroying through our attempts to conquer nature.

15 thoughts on “Slowly Plodding Toward Extinction”

  1. can you please help me contemplate the use of literary terms in the last two stanzas. Thank you

  2. I’d like to help you, but I don’t think I really understand the question you are asking, Alissa.

    What “literary terms” do you find in the next to last stanza?

    The only literary term I see is “symbols.” In what sense are the tortoises symbols? What do you think they symbolize? Look back at the title of the poem, for a hint. What do we usually keep in museums, as opposed to zoos.

  3. Hey guys…im guessing we are all desperate for “Journey to the Interior’ poetry information because it is in our stimulus booklet for inner journeys.
    If we all start posting information we can put a comprehensive summary together that could benefit us all. I have an exam concerning the poem on monay 22nd march so I especially am eager to colloborate and will try to post any information I get from anaysing the poem.
    Any information regarding ‘inner journeys’ from anyone would be great!

  4. Sorry, kids, but as an ex-teacher you can’t use my site to collect information to help you on your exam, though you’re more than welcome to email Jessica.

    I already closed comments on Journey to the Interior because I was tired of having my comments overflow with student comments.

    There are lots of bulletin boards where you can post such information.

    Jessica, if you find a place where you want to start such a group email me at loren at and I will post the address here.

  5. loren, your analysis into progressive insanities of a pioneer is pretty shallow, can you expand more into what the pioneer is going through, physical and mental struggles in order to succeed as a pioneer

  6. Gee, kRi, as an ex-teacher I don’t really think I want to answer whatever questions YOUR teacher might have wanted to ask you.

    Didn’t you at least read the above comments?

  7. I like to start off by saying, though I am a student, I swear this is not for school. But I really would like your opinion. Personally I find what you write great; not tediously long, and insightful enough to help guide me to start exploring the poetry with some independent thought.

    I was wondering if you thought that perhaps the tortoise was a symbol of the past– the ancient natural world, and how she can see it disappearing, left only to the remote places of the world. I have a feeling you are suggesting something like that. But it just struck me how she listed birds, and then “the eskimo”, not even capitalizing Eskimo. Is she commenting on how people tend to advocate selectively for a certain group, and saying that she is looking at the problem in a bit more holistic view? Or am I way off here?

    I also would like to assure you that the person who ironically spelled Canadian wrong, was right; we do spell center as centre (although American spelling is getting more and more interchangeable with Canadian spelling). I would hope that Atwood would not slight Americans in such an offhand way. She doesn’t seem the type to promote stereotypes.

  8. I knew that the Canadians, and British, spell “Center” as “Centre”. I was just making a small joke, since she was referring to an American institution.

    I could certainly see the giant Tortise as a symbol of the past, especially since she ties it together with “relic” in the last stanza.

    I’m not sure Tortise is an more “holistic” than “eskimo,” though. I took it as a personal preference, perhaps because I often see the world in terms of what is happening to “nature” rather than in terms of the history of people.

  9. I think the poem may be about a certain breed of people – the optimistic, hopeful ones. The ones of faith. The ones who persevere despite all obstacles, with a faith in something bigger, maybe God himself. I think this author may be saying that all that faith and hope and optism is for nothing. That in they end they will phase out just like everyone else, either individually or collectively, doesn’t really matter. Nobody gets out alive, is what the narrator seems to be saying. I, on the other hand, disagree. I think God, through Jesus Christ, has brought us thus far, and he’s not going to bail on us now. The Bible calls him the Author and FINISHER of our faith. He will see us through to the point that our faith and hope is realized in true eternal life.

    But hey, that’s just my take. It could be about turtles.

  10. The teacher in me would want you to actually tie your interpretation to specific words, phrases, or sentences in the poem, anne.

  11. I’m using this poem for an English assignment but I need to interpret each stanza.. or at least each stanza to create a clear analysis of the poem. I understand the meaning of it but when it comes to dissecting the poem, it’s hard for me to understand and explain. Can you futher explain the stanzas please? thank you

  12. I am but a child but I found a certain comfort in this little poem. I have a tortoise named Achilles, who will more than likely outlive me by many years. Maybe it is because of my young age that I found this poem explains a lot to me.
    Thanks. donnie

    elegy of ages

    poets of centuries,
    their words ever so
    whisper their lives
    Result in catastrophe
    but preserve them forever
    -in elegy

    Sakura Tomoko

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