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Ruth Miller

Penguin on the Beach

Some challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 3 March 2014
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A penguin has been caught in an oil slick which has threatened him with death. He has been lucky, however, for he has been cleaned up and is now being set free. His anxieties nevertheless persist.


Ruth Miller was born in 1919 at Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape.

She was apparently deserted by her father, whereupon she and her mother moved onto a farm with an aunt, probably in what was then the Northern Transvaal -- now the Northern Province of South Africa.

She was educated at a convent school before moving to Johannesburg where she would spend most of her adult life. There she became involved in school education, first as a secretary and later as a teacher of English.

Her poetry has been described as invoking a "note of tragedy", probably influenced by the untimely death of her teenage son in 1962.

She herself would die of cancer in 1969, just seven years later. She was just 50 years of age.

The poem "Penguin on the Beach" was written during the late 1960s, and portrays the impact on a penguin of being caught in an oil-slick with its dreadful threat of extinction of whole colonies of sea-life.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Stranger in his own element,
Sea-casualty, the castaway manikin
Waddles in his tailored coat-tails."
  • Why is the penguin described as a "sea-casualty"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why would the penguin be a "a stranger in his own element"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why was the penguin referred to as a "manikin . . . in his tailored coat-tails"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Oil has spread a deep commercial stain
Over his downy shirt front. Sleazy, grey,
It clogs the sleekness."
  • Why does the poet refer to a "commercial stain" over the penguin's downy "shirt front"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is the connotation of the word "sleazy" to describe the oil stain? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Explain how the writer creates a negative or critical attitude towards the oil? (4)

[Need help?]

The poet, having described the penguin as a "manikin", uses clearly human characteristics to describe the bird.
  • Find some examples of this throughout this poem. (10)

[Need help?]

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