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Robert Lowell

Women, children,
babies, cows, cats

Some more challenging questions!

Lorraine Knickelbein
Grens High School
Updated: 4 March 2014
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Sonmy or Son My is a district in Vietnam which is divided into four villages, My Lai being one of them. "Pinkville" refers to a military description of the My Lai area.

In March 1968, American soldiers embarked on a "search and destroy" mission to uncover communist fighters, or "Vietcong" as they were known.

The American troops were landed by helicopter. Within three hours, between 350 and 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed in cold blood.

Hand grenades were thrown into civilian homes and the fleeing people were bayoneted. Others were grouped and executed by machine gun.

Victims were also beaten and tortured, and bodies were mutilated. Women and young girls were gang raped. Everything was burned, including houses, crops and livestock.

There was, however, no enemy fire and no Vietcong communist fighters were found. The soldiers were told to keep quiet about the incident.

Nevertheless, many soldiers did eventually speak out. The My Lai massacre thereupon caused a public outcry and led to a turning-point in American public opinion about the war.

This poem reflects the horrors of war, the deaths of innocents, the guilt at having participated and the loss of values.

The poet also conveys the bitterness and anger felt by the soldiers, using the style of an actual conversation, filled with the soldiers' jargon.


Robert Lowell was born in the eastern United States city of Boston in 1917. He attended Harvard University for about two years before transferring to Kenyon College where he graduated in 1940.

He suffered from bi-polar disease -- which has been described as a mental disorder that is characterised by periods of mania and depression.

He volunteered for military service during World War II but he was deeply shocked by the Allied bombing of German cities, with so many civilian deaths. He thereupon became a conscientious objector, for which he was jailed for several months and then had to do community service.

He later became an outspoken critic of American involvement in the Vietnam War. To highlight his opposition to this war, he even publicly refused President Lyndon Johnson's personal invitation to a prestigious Arts Festival held at the White House.

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

"It was at My Lai or Sonmy or something."
  • What is significant about the repetition of "or" in this line? (3)

[Need help?]

"we was to burn and kill . . . "
"as we was coming up upon one area."
  • Why does the poet include concord errors in these lines? (2)

[Need help?]

Why can the discovery of the baby be regarded as ironic? (2)

[Need help?]

What was the woman trying to do if she had "one foot in the door"? (2)

[Need help?]

Why does the poet not include "men" in the title of the poem -- or in the line "standing, women, children, babies, cows, cats . . . "? (2)

[Need help?]

"As soon as we hopped the choppers, we started shooting."
  • What is meant by "innuendo"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the poet's use of innuendo here? (4)

[Need help?]

Would you say that this soldier is aware of his loss of values? Explain your answer. (3)

[Need help?]

Quote two lines which reflect the callousness displayed by the soldiers. Explain your answer. (2 + 4)

[Need help?]

"there was this little one-month-year-old baby."
  • Account for the age discrepancy when the soldier refers to the baby. (4)

[Need help?]

"It kind of cracked me up."
  • To what does the pronoun "it" refer? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Identify the tone of this last sentence. (2)

[Need help?]

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See also:
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