James Patrick Kinney creates a poetic tale; ‘The Cold Within’ to expose the damage humanity does to itself by falling prey to discrimination Written in the background of the Civil Rights movement (1954-1968), Kinney used his words to express outrage against discriminatory attitudes at the time and encourages a level of introspection.
With the current atmosphere of intolerance, prejudice and hatred this poem is even more relevant today remind us to adopt a temperament of inclusion, acceptance, and goodness.
Given the sensitive subject matter, note Kinney’s cleverly using of imagery to present a parable denouncing bigotry and segregation. The words and structure are simple and there is a lack of any convoluted idioms or complex metaphors.
He personifies Death and uses an allegory with ‘wood logs’. He avoids grand judgments and allows the reader to arrive at his own inferences and conclusions.
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.
Recreating a dark, the poet presents a scene where six persons are gripped in a bleak winter with each having a single stick of wood. Use of individuals rather than a group that means they are brought together by fate than their own free will.
He uses the term happenstance to lend it a sense of inevitability and bitter cold to elicit a feeling of dread in the reader’s mind.
Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.
The second stanza depicts a fire running out of fuel and in need to wood to burn. In the cold winter heat from the fire is critical to keep their bodies warm. All of them can survive if they use their stick one by one.
It is time to come together. But the first man refrains from using it because it will benefit a black person too. Even at the cost of his own harm, he refuses to use the stick. That is the evil of racism.
The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The second person sees someone who has different religious views than him. Therefore, he refuses to use his stick too. This shows religious intolerance and bigotry of faith.
This shows how consumed people can be in their condemnation of others who have different views. They would rather cause self-harm than bring any benefit to others.
The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
Now we move to the third person who comes from a poor background as he is wearing torn and worn-out clothes. He evens tugs his cloth (hitch) a bit tighter because he is feeling severely cold.
He is carrying spite against people who are rich and well-off (idle) and refuses to use his stick to warm their bodies with his minimal means.
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor
Diametrically opposite to the poor man we come to the rich now. He is proud of his wealth and only worried about keeping his wealth safe from the poor. He keeps his stick away from the poor who he considers lazy.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
Now the chance falls to the black man, a victim of racism. But he is full of ill-will against his oppressors and in his desire for revenge is willing to let the fire die out. He is ready to perish as long as the people who abused him suffer too.
The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
Now the poet passes judgment over the group for the first time as he calls the last man selfish and opportunistic. Previously, he had reserved giving conclusions and letting readers decide but here he calls the group as forlorn and consumed by self-indulgence.
The poet calls this cycle of refusal to help others and take the initiative as a metaphorical game of life that all of them are about to lose.
Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.
Predictably we arrive at a grim ending in which all of them died. They did not succumb to the cold weather outside but perished because of their apathy toward each other.
Death is personified with ‘still hands’ as every man refused to act and save the entire group. The poet calls out their sin, opting to die with sticks in their hand than throwing it in the fire to save everyone. The last lines underline the irony of these men becoming agents of their own demise.
The whole story is a stirring parable about the consequences of human follies like hate, prejudice, bigotry, and selfishness. Discrimination is the biggest of human sin which denotes a sense of coldness and insensitivity for other people’s pain.
It is the lack of empathy for others that makes us cold and dead from inside and it stops our human spirit from truly living and thriving. The poem is a clear critique of the futility of human attitude of discrimination, bias, and opportunism.