Her Head by Joan Murray

Her Head by Joan Murray

Near Ekuvukeni,
in Natal, South Africa,
a woman carries water on her head.
After a year of drought,
when one child in three is at risk of death,
she returns from a distant well,
carrying water on her head.
Explanation …. Drought has ravaged the settlement named Ekuvukeni in the province of Natal in South Africa. Life has become scare making life for the women folk very hard indeed. As wells and water bodies have dried up in the parched land, a woman has to walk long distances to fetch water from distant wells. She brings the water by keeping the pail on her head.


The pumpkins are gone,
the tomatoes withered,
yet the woman carries water on her head.
The cattle kraals are empty,
the goats gaunt—
no milk now for children,
but she is carrying water on her head.
Explanation ….. The means of livelihood for the inhabitants of the area are nearly destroyed due to lack of water. Vegetable plants like pumpkin and tomatoes have shriveled, unable to survive in the parched earth. There is no respite for the woman. Water is indispensible for life. So, she continues to haul water on her head.


The engineers have reversed the river:
those with power can keep their power,
but one woman is carrying water on her head.
In the homelands, where the dusty crowds
watch the empty roads for water trucks,
one woman trusts herself with treasure,
and carries water on her head.
Explanation … The authorities have blocked the flow of water so that hydroelectric power plants have enough water to generate power. The privileged folks living in the upstream areas are much better off. Life in the downstream areas has become a real grind. People wait for water trucks winding their way in the mud tracks. Dust flies all round shrouding the thirsty folks waiting for the water trucks. But, the woman has no option but to trudge on with her load of water on her head.


The sun does not dissuade her,
not the dried earth that blows against her,
as she carries the water on her head.
In a huge and dirty pail,
with an idle handle,
resting on a narrow can,
this woman is carrying water on her head.
Explanation …. Undeterred by the scorching sun and the blasts of dust that buffet her along the way, she lumbers on carrying the large old pail on her head.


This woman, who girds her neck
with safety pins, this one
who carries water on her head,
trusts her own head to bring to her people
what they need now
between life and death:
She is carrying them water on her head.
Explanation … Water is the lifeline for her family. So, no matter how hard it is to bring it, she brings the water pail on her head. Her neck is girded by safety pins. She relies on her head to carry the load of water. She considers it her foremost duty to ensure her folks do not suffer thirst and perish. So, she does not demur to do the grueling work of fetching water.

The Lotus by Tory Dutt

The Lotus-Toru Dutt (1856-1877)

Love came to Flora asking for a flower
That would of flowers be undisputed queen,
The lily and the rose, long, long had been
Rivals for that high honour. Bards of power
Had sung their claims. “The rose can never tower
Like the pale lily with her Juno mien”–
“But is the lily lovelier?” Thus between
Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche’s bower.

Explanation …. Love is the name of the beautiful princess who was courted by Cupid (the god of love in Roman mythology). Cupid wanted to make Love his wife. Love has the mythological name ‘Psyche’.
a. On one occasion, Love approached Flora (The Roman Goddess of flowers and spring) and asked for a flower that would have the magnetic seductiveness of the rose, and the majesty, grace and freshness of the lily.
b. For a long time, the rose and the lily had vied (competed) for the high throne of Queen of Flowers. The competition had become quite keen due to the patronizing of the two rival flowers by eminent poets.
c. The poets who adored rose criticized lily saying it looked pale and stood looking like the goddess Juno. Those who admired lily heaped praise on it profusely. Thus, the flower loving poet community was split into two factions – the rose camp and the lily camp. They engaged in their arguments sitting under the cool shade of the Psyche tree.

“Give me a flower delicious as the rose
And stately as the lily in her pride”–
“But of what colour?”–“Rose-red,” Love first chose,
Then prayed,–“No, lily-white,–or, both provide;”
And Flora gave the lotus, “rose-red” dyed,
And “lily-white,”–the queenliest flower that blows.

Explanation ….. d. Love came to Flora and asked for a flower that would have the elegance and charm of the red rose. Moments later, she changed her mind and opted for the fresh white lily. Still undecided on her choice, she asked Flora to give her a flower that would have the best of the both, the red rose and the white lily.
e. Flora quickly conceived the Lotus that had the attributes of both the red rose in colour and the majesty and towering stance of the lily. Love was greatly delighted as the Lotus was both red and stately in appearance.

ICSE English poem — Small Pain in My Chest

Small Pain in my Chest
By Michael Mack

Introduction .. Death follows a soldier at every step of the way in the battlefield. Yet, a valiant soldier lumbers on, braving the enemy bullets and the injuries to his body. Death often comes slowly inflicting excruciating pain on the wounded solitary soldier. As the Sun sets in his life, he finds no one to bring him succor or solace. Finally, he breathes his last.
But, the gutsy soldier dies for a cause – the call to defend his country. Some unflinching steadfast soldiers, the refusal of their limbs to continue fighting brings lament and remorse. In the present case, what hurt the dying soldier more is the fear his mother and wife could assume that he capitulated before the enemy before shedding the last drop of blood.
It is a hugely inspirational song that sings the praise of a fatally wounded soldier bemoaning not his death, but his inability to carry on fighting. He dies defying death. For generation to come, his story of valour and dedication will imbibe the never-say-die spirit in countless soldiers.
Explanation …
Stanza 1 … “The soldier boy was ……… by morning’s light”.
The battle ground was the scene of intense fighting the day before. Dead bodies of fallen soldiers lay strewn all over the place. Drained of all his energy, a solitary soldier had slumped on the ground under a tree. The morning Sun had begun to shine.He had been grievously wounded. He saw another soldier nearby, and motioned him to come nearer.
Stanza 2.. “I wonder if you would help …… pain in my chest.”
Barely managing to smile, the soldier told the other person that he was very thirsty, and begged him to give him some water. He stated how grueling the fighting had been the night before. The non-stop fight had sapped his energy and had left a “small pain in his chest.” It was an understatement. The soldier had been grievously wounded in his chest, but he chose to play it down.
Stanza 3 … “As I looked at him …………….. pain in my chest”.
The second soldier (the author as narrator) looked at his comrade and discovered that his shirt was blood-stained and his uniform was soiled. All this pointed to the fact that the soldier had endured a savage fight. Quite stoically, the wounded soldier made light of his own injury, and declared that he has so luckily survived with a ‘small pain in the chest’, where as all his fellow soldiers had fallen dead. It was a remarkable show of defiance and grit. With astounding courage, he could conceal the excruciating pain to put up a brave face.
Stanza 4 … “Must be fatigue, ………… small pain in my chest”.
The young soldier was fast losing his vitality, but his mind was not ready to give up. He narrated how his 2–strong contingent had managed to climb atop a rock in the previous night. As they began to descend, the enemy rained bullets on them killing almost all of them instantly. It had been a very bloody encounter. Then the soldier looked within. He felt cold although the Sun shone brightly. His limbs had become numb and insipid. A creeping feeling of doom had overtaken his mind. He felt he was nearing his dotage. But, his spirit was as hardly scarred. He wanted to believe that it was the fatigue of the hard-fought battle that made him feel low then. Smiling wryly, he reiterated that his injury was minor.
Stanza 5 .. “I looked around to go ………. small pain in my chest.”
The young soldier shared some more details of the encounter. He stated how, in the aftermath of the encounter, he had looked around to get some help for his comrades. But it was all in vain. All that he saw was deep bomb crater and the corpses of his fellow soldiers. Undaunted by the catastrophe, he continued to fire at the enemy until the ‘small pain in his chest’ made him to sit down on the ground.
Stanza 6 … “I am grateful ………………………. pain in the chest”.
The second soldier (the author as narrator) handed over the water to the young soldier. The latter drank it, and smiled happily and very gratefully. His face reflected the deep joy within. Then he bemoaned the fact that a strong and stout soldier like him could be down on his knees amidst the fury of the battleground. He lamented the fact that a ‘small pain in the chest’ had done him in. It was show of Herculean courage to describe a fatal bullet wound as a ‘small pain in the chest.’
Stanza 7 … “What would my wife ………………. pain in my chest”.
Then the young soldier began to introspect how his near and dear ones would judge his reluctance to fight. His wife could assume that her large-framed husband was an indeed timid soul within. His mother, who reared him to manhood, would be ashamed to see her son capitulating to the enemy just because of a ‘small pain in the chest.” The young soldier obviously knew the regard and reverence with which his family and society looked at him. He was ashamed that their trust had been belied.
Stanza 8 … “Can it be getting dark so soon …………….. small pain in the chest”.
The young soldier saw darkness descending all around. He looked at the Sun and couldn’t figure out how dusk could fall so soon. Oblivious of the impending death, the young unflinching soldier had hoped to resume fighting after a brief rest. But, it was a vain day dream. He departed within moments.
Stanza 9 .. “I don’t recall …………………….. small one in his chest.”
For the second soldier (the author as narrator), it was a deeply moving experience to see a young soldier signing off from life with all guns blazing. He had defied death, lived the life of a real hero, and left a trail of inspiration and glory. Overwhelmed with emotions, the narrator put his arms around him, and pressed him to his bosom. The real wound in the heart of the deceased soldier had carved far bigger wound in the narrator’s heart. Sadness laced with pride, anguish mixed with admiration, and empathy lined with reverence gripped his ‘wounded’ heart.

Questions .. a. How did the young soldier get wounded?

The young soldier was part of a 200-strong contingent that was climbing a rock in course of a battle somewhere in Asia. During the descent, they ran into unexpected and heavy bombardment by the enemy. The fight continued overnight. Suddenly, a huge explosion happened that caused all of his fellow soldiers to die instantly. He survived, but with a grievous wound in his chest.

b. What did he do soon after the explosion?

Like a well-trained disciplined soldier, he tried to come to the aid of his fellow soldiers, but could do little as all of them had died. There was a huge bomb crater. Undaunted by the savage attack, he continued to fire at the enemy until he became too weak to continue. He sat down under a tree.

c. Why was he so full of remorse?

He felt sad as he could not continue to fight. He thought about his wife and mother back home, and felt that they would take a dim view of his virtual ‘capitulation’. The soldier in him told him to press on, but he was too drained to do it. This made him remorseful.

d. What qualities of the soldier make him stand apart?

The soldier was stoic, courageous and very committed to his duty. He was defiant in the face of death and wanted to press on despite the excruciating pain he suffered due to the big wound in his chest. He ignored the suffering calling it ‘a small pain in my chest’. Such determination to fight even when death knocked on his door made him a truly astounding soldier.

e. How did the author-narrator feel when the soldier died?

The author-narrator was shattered to see the young wounded soldier dieing before him. His heart was filled with grief, admiration and love for the young fighter who died defying death. He fell in the battlefield like a true hero. He departed from this world with all guns blazing.

Symbolism in the poem …

1. The title ‘Small Pain in the Chest’ is a brilliant example of symbolism. The author has sung the praise of the young valiant soldier who, despite his fatal wound in the chest, defies death, and rues his inability to continue fighting. The author has succeeded in underlining his message quite effectively by describing the lament of the dying soldier not in groans and curses, but in words conveying stoicism, pride, and defiance.

2. “Can it be getting dark so soon?” He winced up at the sun.
“It’s growing dim and I thought that the day had just begun.
These lines are another example of the author resorting to ‘symbolism’. The wounded soldier stands on the throes of death. This why everything looks darker to him, although the Sun still shines bright. Yet, valour is still palpable in the soldier’s who would breathe his last soon. The lines juxtapose the gloom of the soldier’s life with his never-say-die spirit.

3. ‘And, as I held him to me, I could feel our wounds were pressed
The large one in my heart against the small one in his chest.’
Again, this is an exquisite example of ‘symbolism’. The second soldier was not physically wounded at all. But, the just-dead warrior’s last regretful words have flummoxed him. He is as moved as he is sad by the dead soldier’s words.


Main events of ‘Small’ Pain in My Chest

  1. The raging battle took a heavy toll of life, and the young soldier got wounded, along with scores of others.
  2. The brave soldier narrated to his comrade how the ‘small’ pain in his chest had left him down on his knees. It was a rare show of defiance in the face of heavy odds.
  3. The wounded soldier bemoaned his fate not because he was grievously wounded, but because he could fight no longer. He remembered his wife and mother, and felt ashamed to think that they would react with disgust to learn about his abject capitulation.
  4. His limbs became insipid as death loomed over him. The day appeared dark, and the Sun appeared to be setting. His end had come.
  5. The two comrades embraced one another and the young one breathed his last with remorse that a ‘small’ pain in his chest had did him in. He wrote a new saga in gallantry and patriotism.



I Believe — Explanation and Questions and Answers

I Believe
By Brucellis K Sangma
I believe if a pebble is thrown upwards
I can pierce the heavens
And see the angels at play.


The poem celebrates the undying spirit, optimism and the countless possibilities of the human beings’ abilities. But, for the miracles of their dreams to happen, they must have the grit, resoluteness, and the will power. Through fantasy the poet cites the throwing of a pebble skywards, and piercing the Heavens to underscore the fact that a human being needs to summon all his physical and mental strengths to accomplish the impossible. While reading the lines, the symbolism of the poet’s words come out loud and clear.
I believe I can soar to the heights
Touch the silky clouds
And feel the stars.


Again the poet exudes superhuman audacity by stating that she could ‘touch the clouds and caper amidst the stars by her effort – but, only if she is determined. Super-human goals demand super-human endeavours. There is no short-cut here.
I believe I can dive
Right into the depths
And swim with the sharks.


Again, the poet reiterates that she can do near-impossible feats, like diving into the depths of seas and frolic among the sharks if she wanted. Obviously, the poet is awash with confidence and courage. She reckons that feats that appear only in fantasy can be accomplished by a determined individual.
I believe I can claw into the earth’s belly
Pick up the priceless gems
And adorn myself with them.


The author further illustrates her daring nature by stating that she can dig deep into the earth, mine her precious stones and decorate herself with them. It is a metaphoric exposing of her ingrained courage to explore the unknown, and enrich her mind with the knowledge gained through such expedition.
I believe I can do many things
Amidst the human angels
Surrounded by the world’s treasures.


The author underlines her resolve to do some great acts of sacrifice and dedication for the good of the humanity. She feels she can utilize the world’s wealth for the betterment of mankind.
But I firmly believe I’ve to complete
The role assigned to me here
Where I dream and breathe.


In the last lines, the author is far more circumspect. She knows letting the dreams soar high is busy, but accomplishing the objectives may prove to too daunting a task. So, she wants to be a pragmatist and a realist. She feels the duty before her, whether small or big, must be done with utmost sincerity and honesty. Wavering from the reality and flying among the clouds is futile, she cautions. The tasks in hand must get precedence over the mind’s limitless ambitions. Dreaming is easy, doing not.
Questions and answers ..
a. What is the central message of the poem?
The author sings the praise of ‘the audacity of hope’ in this poem. She lifts the readers’ spirit by narrating the many daunting tasks one can undertake to make one’s life purposeful. Thus, the message is one of ambition, altruism and dedication. However, she cautions against the perils of dreaming and neglecting the tasks in hand. Hope must not be opium that makes a man sedate and indolent.


b. Can you guess the type of person the author is?
She is a brave, service-minded and benign person. At the same time, she is a hard realist, not a day-dreamer.


c. Why the author states such impossible tasks like ‘clawing into the heart of earth’ and ‘diving into the deep sea to swim with the sharks’?
These are nothing but very poetic metaphors to illustrate the daring nature of the author. While declaring her ambitions, she beckons others to follow in her footsteps and be audacious. Her call is for dedication to duty in true fearless and daring way.

ICSE English poem — A Psalm of Life

A Psalm of Life

by H. W. Longfellow

Introduction .. This is a poem that radiates hope, optimism, inspiration and a call to action. In the same vein, it seeks to dispel the sense of resignation, despair, indolence, and pessimism.

First stanzaTell me not ……………… not where they seem.
Meaning .. It is a call to shake off desultory thoughts that push some human beings to despair and inaction. The author calls upon those under the spell of such morbid perception of life to see the brighter side of life and not let their souls rot in indolence. In a lugubrious tone, the author urges these disaffected people never to see life as a barren landscape where not a blade of grass grows. Human soul’s power of creativity, and its ability to drive a person to loftier heights of existence is lost on these people. They see nothing substantive in things around them.
2nd stanza Life is real! ……………………..spoken of the soul.
Meaning … The author implores the purposeless, ‘defeated’ people to rediscover life, and not treat it as fecund just because it ends in grave. Human soul defies destruction. It has limitless abilities. Ignoring the creative potential of soul will be foolish and futile. So, the author argues, defeatist thinking should cede ground to vibrant and exuberant living.
Stanza 3 .. Not enjoyment, not for sorrow ………………. Find us farther than today
Meaning ….. Life’s journey on earth must not be gauged by the misery and mirth one endures. The travails and triumphs can not dictate the course of life. Instead, the endeavour must be to reach higher and higher levels of achievement in one’s field of activity. The progress might be incremental, but it must be relentless. Pursuit of perfection should be the motto of life despite the sacrifices it demands from an individual.

Stanza 4 Art is long and Time is fleeting ……………. Marches to the grave
Meaning … The journey from cradle to grave is unstoppable. The scope to accomplish something bigger, better and nobler is enormous. However, time marches on. There is no scope for a pause for the perfectionist. With each moment passing, one inexorably inches towards one’s grave. The heart has to stop beating to mark a mortal’s departure from this world. So, the author implores his fellow human beings to strive unceasingly to loftier heights, and not be distracted by the joys and sorrows that must accompany a person all the way during his existence on earth.


In the world’s broad field of battle,

   In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

   Be a hero in the strife!

Life presents myriad challenges, daunting tasks, and formidable hurdles. Confronting them requires Herculean willpower and a valiant never-do-die spirit. One has to summon all these traits to live through one’s life triumphantly, with dignity, and emerge with honnour. Giving up easily is escapism that brings humiliation, misery and ridicule. The author calls upon his readers not to give up, and accept defeat meekly. Capitulation to challenges is akin to the fear of fight seen in cattle.


Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

   Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,–act in the living Present!

   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Never put your trust on soothsayers, astrologers, and people making prophesies. To curry favour, they  might mislead you with rosy forecasts about your future that may or may not materialize. On the other hand, brooding over past failures, defeats, and indignities heaped by enemies yield no benefit other than weakening your resolve to get back to your feet and confront your tormentors, restore your livelihood, and re-build your life. Live in the present. Let the sad past overshadow your vision, nor the rosy forecast of astrologers and advisors numb you to inactivity. Take stock of your present, plan your strategy, garner your resources and begin to resurrect your life. That is the wise way.


Lives of great men all remind us

   We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

   Footprints on the sands of time;

When we read and reflect on the biographies of all great men and women, it becomes apparent that nearly all of them struggled their way to the zenith of their careers. Their lives were riddled with setbacks and their minds could never rest until they accomplished their goals. Some of them perished while in the midst of their lives’ battles. But, through their demise, they rose to conquer the heats of millions – like true heroes.


Footprints, that perhaps another,

   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

The single-minded pursuit of a passion or a dream of these immortal men and women could or could not have brought them success in their life time, but their energy, dedication and indomitable spirit definitely inspires all those who dare to brave the pitfalls and hurdles in the quest of their goals. Thus, a hero’s sacrifice prods others to strive to achieve lofty goals in life.


Let us, then, be up and doing,

   With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing

   Learn to labor and to wait.

At the end, the author calls upon his readers to rise, take on the challenges, and confront the demands of life with great zest, verve and valour. One must lumber on defying the odds of life. Failings are inevitable, but through perseverance and rectitude, one must learn to wage a battle against frustration and fatal weakness of mind.