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Robert Lowell

Women, children,
babies, cows, cats

Still 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."
  • Does the use of "or" imply that the soldier has become indifferent to what he is doing? (4)

[Need help?]

A "colloquialism" has been described as "characteristic of spoken or written communication that seeks to imitate informal speech".
  • This poem contains many colloquialisms. Quote examples of at least FOUR. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet use these colloquialisms? (3)

[Need help?]

"Jargon" has been described as "the language -- and especially the vocabulary -- that is peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group", e.g. medical jargon or computer jargon.
  • Quote an example of jargon in this poem and say why the poet has chosen to use it. (4)

[Need help?]

The poet uses "ellipsis" throughout the poem.
  • What is "ellipsis"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • How does the use of ellipsis contribute to the poem and the poet's intention? (4)

[Need help?]

"women, children, babies, cows, cats . . . "
  • What is the effect of the ellipses in this line? (2)

[Need help?]

"we had all night to think about it."
  • What would the emotional impact of this have been on the soldiers? (4)

[Need help?]

"You shoot her, I don't want to shoot no lady."
  • Why do you think the poet speaks of "lady" and not "woman"? (2)

[Need help?]

Why is it appropriate for the poet to use free verse in this poem? (4)

[Need help?]

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