An Analysis of ‘What Were They Like?’ By Denise Levertov

What Were They Like By Denise Levertov
1. Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
2. Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
3.Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
4.Did they use bone and ivory
jade and silver, for ornament?
5.Had they an epic poem?
6.Did they distinguish between speech and singing?
1. Sir, their light hearts turned into stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.
2. Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossoms
but after the children were killed
there were no more buds
3. Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
4. A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All bones are charred.
5. It is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
6. There is no echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported that their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

This piece by Denise Levertov is about the Vietnam War which occurred between 1955 till 1975. This political poetry explores the aftermath of the effects of the war in a compelling and thought provoking manner.

Title and Structure

The title which is ‘What were they like?’ simply implies a sense of curiosity and eagerness to understand what they Vietnam people were like. This curiosity is displayed in the structure of the poem. It is written as two stanza. The first stanza is a series of questions and the second stanza’s are the bitter answers to those questions. It can be said that this piece is almost like a conversation between two people. This could be interpreted as a conversation between  a tourist and a tour guide or even a dialogue between interviewer and interviewee. However, it is imperative to know that both sides are knowledgeable about Vietnam. It is just that the person asking questions holds a naive and oblivious view. Therefore, the questions gravitates towards the culture and customs of Vietnam such as ‘ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds’. This question is about what they celebrate. This cultural knowledge exudes further through asking about their ‘speech and language’ and their ‘epic poem’ as well as  what they used for ‘ornament’. It is a curiosity to their culture without the acknowledgement of the impact of the war on the culture of Vietnam. This, therefore, leads to the second part of the poem which answers all those questions and highlights the impact of war on the Vietnam people culture and customs.

Poetic Devices

Repetition: In the first stanza, the word ‘Did’ is used in every sentence. This reinforces the theme of curiosity.  However, if we analyse the word further, did is the past tense of do. This suggests that there is an ambiguous connotation here. The ambiguous connotation is that the person asking the question may have an idea that these customs were done in the past but may not be aware of whether it is done now. Therefore, he/she is curious to find out the answer.

Juxtaposition: In the second stanza, there is a series of contrast and juxtaposition. For instance, the opening line of the person answering the question begins with ‘ Sir, their light hearts turned to stone’. This shows how the war turned people with a light heated nature to stone. This imagery is one of softness and hardness in the same sentence.

Imagery: It offers bleak imagery through lines such as ‘after the children were killed, there were no more buds’. This powerful imagery helps us imagine that children should be growing like flowers but after the impact of the war, children didn’t grow. Like flowers they didn’t bud.


To conclude, I believe the message of this poem is to raise awareness and insight into what life was like before, during and after the Vietnam War. It offers a cultural and political understanding of the impact of war on people.

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