They are Hostile Nations Poem by Margaret Atwood Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “They are Hostile Nations” is written by Margaret Atwood. The poem was first published in her poetry collection “Power Politics” in 1971. The premise of the poem is the Cold War that happened between the United States of America and Russia. This was started after the Second World War and concluded in 1991.the poem talks about the lives of the people who lived through this time and what they experienced. The poet says that everyone wanted peace and no one wanted to fight the other, but they had to live in the world where the two power giants of the modern world went head to head.

About the poet

Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Canada. She is a Canadian writer, poet, critic and teacher. She is also an inventor. She is also the founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Writer’s Trust of Canada. She has written and pun;joshed numerous books and poetry collections. Some of her writings have also won many awards like the Booker Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize and the National Book Critics award. Some of her most notable works include “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “The Blind Assassin” and “The Testaments”.


The poem is written in free-verse and does not follow any traditional convention of poetry. It is divided into 3 sections, with the first section containing 2 quatrains in the beginning and the end and 2 couplets in between. The second section has a quatrain in between two tercet. The last section has a couplet, a coda, a tercet and a quatrain.

Part 1

In view of the fading animals

the proliferation of sewers and fears   

the sea clogging, the air

nearing extinction

we should be kind, we should

take warning, we should forgive each other

Instead we are opposite, we   

touch as though attacking,

the gifts we bring

even in good faith maybe   

warp in our hands to

implements, to manoeuvres


In these lines, the speaker reflects on the deteriorating state of the environment with fading animals, increasing sewers, and rising fears. Despite this, she advocates for kindness, caution, and forgiveness. However, she observes a contrary human tendency – people interact as if engaged in a conflict. The speaker suggests that the well-intentioned gifts we bring may unintentionally transform into tools or strategies. The speaker highlights the paradox of human behavior, where despite the urgent need for understanding and compassion in the face of environmental challenges, our actions often reflect a confrontational stance.


The poet uses these lines to explore the themes of environmental degradation and human behavior in the face of crisis. She uses vivid imagery of fading animals, proliferating sewers, and the impending extinction of the sea and air to convey a sense of urgency and ecological concern. The poet advocates for kindness, warning, and forgiveness, emphasizing the need for a compassionate and mindful approach toward the environment and each other. The contrast between the environmental plea and the observation of opposite human behavior introduces a critical perspective.

The poet employs the metaphor of touching as though attacking to depict the paradoxical and often destructive nature of human interactions. The notion that well-intentioned gifts may warp into implements or maneuvers suggests an unintended negative impact on the environment despite positive intentions.

Part 2

Put down the target of me

you guard inside your binoculars,   

in turn I will surrender

this aerial photograph   

(your vulnerable

sections marked in red)   

I have found so useful

See, we are alone in

the dormant field, the snow

that cannot be eaten or captured


In these lines, the speaker is proposing a kind of trade or exchange with someone. She talks about a target that the other person is watching through binoculars, and in return, the speaker offers an aerial photograph. The photo has certain vulnerable areas marked in red, suggesting a reciprocal sharing of information. The speaker describes a scene of being alone in a dormant field covered in snow. The snow is portrayed as something that can’t be eaten or captured, emphasizing a sense of isolation and things beyond control. Overall, it seems like a complex exchange involving information, vulnerability, and the quiet solitude of a snowy landscape.


In these lines, the poet talks about a sort of deal or agreement. She suggests that if the other person shares a target, they’ll reciprocate by giving up an aerial photograph. There’s a sense of negotiation, and the marked sections in red on the photograph hint at vulnerability. The setting is described by the poet as a dormant field covered in snow, creating a peaceful but isolated scene. The snow, described as something “that cannot be eaten or captured,” serves as a metaphor for things that are untouchable or out of reach, touching on themes of isolation and mystery. The poet uses these metaphors and the idea of an exchange to explore themes like secrecy, negotiation, and the mysterious nature of certain information.

Part 3

Here there are no armies   

here there is no money

It is cold and getting colder,

We need each others’

breathing, warmth, surviving   

is the only war

we can afford, stay

walking with me, there is almost   

time / if we can only   

make it as far as

the (possibly) last summer


In these final lines, the speaker paints a world quite different from what we know. There are no armies, no money – just a cold, challenging place where people need each other to survive. It’s a world where the only battle left is the one for survival. The speaker invites someone to stay on this journey, emphasizing the value of warmth and companionship. The mention of “the last summer” adds a touch of urgency, as if time is slipping away. In this stripped-down reality, what matters most is the connection between people, the warmth they share, and the determination to keep going together.


In these lines, the poet paints a vivid picture of a stark and challenging world, devoid of traditional structures like armies and money. The cold atmosphere reflects a harsh and unforgiving environment, setting the tone for a survival-centric narrative. “The only war we can afford” introduces a powerful theme of survival, suggesting that in this stripped-down reality, the fundamental struggle is for basic human needs—breathing and warmth. The call to “stay walking with me” indicates a shared journey through adversity, emphasizing the importance of companionship and solidarity.

The poet employs the phrase “the last summer” to introduce an element of uncertainty and impermanence, perhaps alluding to the fragility of the situation or the urgency of their collective journey.