A Mongoloid Child Handling Shells on the Beach: Richard Snyder - Summary and Critical Analysis

In the poem A Mongoloid Child Handling Shells on the Beach, poet Snyder describes a child turning seashells over by her slow hands and compares this to how the sea tumbles shells on their way to the shore. He describes them as broken bits from the "mazarine maze" and says that they are the calmest things on the sand.



In the second stanza, he draws an image of unbroken children splashing and shouting, rough as the surf and “gay as their nesting towels.” He then refers back to the main subject saying that she plays soberly with the “small change of the sea and hums along with its long slow vowels.

The poem ‘A Mongoloid Child Handling Shells on the Beach’ presents a beautiful contrast between the normal children and the mongoloid children by an economic use of metaphor. To find out the meaning of this poem, we must understand the title. There is a girl at the seaside. She is defective by birth. Her skull is wide and flattened. Her eyes are slanting and she is mentally defective. She is turning the shells over her hands slowly as the sea sent them to her slowly. These shells are broken pieces and they have come out of the deep blue sea, which is mysterious.

Similarly, the girl also has come into this world from the unknown mystery. On the sand of the seashore like the girl, they are the most peaceful things. In contrast to the slow girl, there are other healthy children. They are shouting and walking, spraying the water. They are violent like the waves breaking on the shore. They are as bright or attractive as the towels in which they are fitted lightly. But the girl is playing seriously and thoughtfully with the sea’s small change which is in agreement with her slow speed. She sings a tune with her closed lips copying the vowels of the slow-moving sea.

This poem is about a child, happily gathering shells upon the shore. However, if we closely consider the diction and connotations that Snyder uses, we can contemplate that the meaning of the poem depicts a deeper and darker theme. The title itself gives us an idea from the beginning. The word Mongoloid is an early term for Down's syndrome, a state of mental retardation. Therefore, the poem represents the child as an outcast from the norm of society. There are several words in the text that refer to the child that we usually wouldn't associate with youth. An early clue would again be found in the title, "A Mongoloid Child Handling Shells on the Beach". Snyder used the word "handling" instead of playing or collecting, words which we might think of while envisioning a young girl investigating sea shells. Snyder also uses the word 'slow' to describe the child on more than one occasion, as we see in line one and line eight: "She turns them over in her slow hands/ ...hums back to it its slow vowels." Yet another example could be in line four, which reads: “they are the calmest things on this sand." Calm has been yet another word that we would not most likely use to portray a young child. It very well could be that the author is trying to paint a picture of her impairment and symbolize her condition through her actions. Snyder depicted the ocean as "..the mazarine maze,"(3) instead of simply stating that it is the "deep blue sea", it is easy to speculate that the ocean represents life itself. Her being outside of the water while all the other children are swimming is a key example of her being isolated. The way that she is presented, which is slow and rather solemn, contrasts with the other children who are "rough as surf, gay as their nesting towels."(6) This kind of symbolism is repeated throughout the poem. The sea shells, for instance, are another important representation of her isolation. It reads in line three: “broken bits from a mazarine maze,". If we look at the mazarine maze as being life, and the shells are broken bits of it washed ashore, it becomes clear that the girl is swept out of the regular society, much as the shells were swept out of the sea. It is even more comprehensible when we consider the line "The unbroken children splash and shout,” What Snyder meant by "unbroken children" is that they are not broken off from life, much like the child. They are not broken off of the sea, much like the shells. The child and the shells seem to have a valuable bond in portraying the girl’s solitude form society. This idea becomes even more graspable if we look at lines seven and eight: "But she plays soberly with the sea's small change..." She is the only one who plays with the shells, perhaps the only one who can truly appreciate them. Perhaps it is that the other children ignored the shells on the beach, and were tantalized by the water instead, and maybe this is a foreshadow of her life-to-be, being ignored and pushed out by others.

It is unmistakable that this poem describes a child on the margin of society. Yet even though she does not enjoy the beach as the other children do, she does not resent them, but rather takes pleasure in the small and insignificant things, much like herself. Snyder uses a cacophony of symbolic imagery and carefully chosen words to convey a message about the girl’s life as it is, and perhaps how it will become.

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