James Patrick Kinney The Cold Within Analysis Essay

About the Author: James Patrick Kinney (16 march 1923- 29 May 1974): Born in a humble Irish family, James Patrick Kinney, an Irish American poet, was mostly self-educated. Owing to the responsibility of his mother, upon reaching 10th grade in high school, James dropped out. It was during this period of self-education that he started taking interest in poetries. Primarily known for his poem, “The Cold Within”, James received recognition posthumously that is, after death.

Introduction to the Poem: Written in 1960s, during African American Civil Rights Movement, this poem depicts the inhuman discrimination that was prevalent at that moment. The poet here tries to depict the folly of the age of falling prey to discrimination of all forms without considering the consequences of the same.

The poem is written in the form of a parable where the poet introduces his characters through their actions rather than their names or such. This might be considered as an instance of a glimpse of Chaucer’s writing style with the exception being the lack of humour in the writings of James which is the essence of Chaucer’s writing. It can also be assumed that this particular poem is the visualization of the ideas introduced by Rudyard Kipling in his poem,If.

The poem was first read in a Church from where it has passed on to many hands. After which, the poem first appeared in print as “By Anonymous” in a Dear Abby Column. It was only in January 2000 issue of a Catholic publication called Liguorian, where it the name of the poet was first made known in print.This poem is written in 8 quatrains with an end rhyme scheme of abcb.

Stanza-wise Summary:

Stanza 1:

Six humans trapped by happenstance

In bleak and bitter cold.

Each one possessed a stick of wood

Or so the story’s told.

The first stanza is the opening of a narration as is recalled by the poet himself. The first line, “Six humans trapped by happenstance” means that this six individuals and not a group of six people are trapped or stuck at a situation owing to chance, which also means that they aren’t together out of will but are brought together by mere fate. Whereas, the use of the word, “trapped” signifies that they aren’t really happy in this situation.

The second line, however, tells us about the weather which is “bleak and bitter cold”. In this line the poet is trying to make his readers familiar with the setting of his narration. The poet, further, informs his readers that each of these “six humans” “possessed stick of wood/ Or so…” as he recalls the story once heard. Hence, the first stanza sets the scene of the narration that is to follow.

Stanza 2:

Their dying fire in need of logs

The first man held his back

For of the faces round the fire

He noticed one was black.

The second stanza is actually the second phase of the narration; it is in this stanza that we get to know the first character of the story. As the first stanza has already made clear that the story took place in a “bitter cold” place. Hence, the line “Their dying fire in need of logs” further, establishes the point that the prospects of the characters in the story aren’t really good, as they are all stuck with each other in this cold weather where the only source of heat which is a “dying fire” and is in the need of logs.

But “the first man” who has a log which can save the fire from dying “held his back” which means he has refused to give his log not because he is selfish but because he sees a black man sitting around the fire too. He would struggle rather than save a black man. Thus, he chose to struggle rather than give his log to the fire which would have saved him and the black man alike.

Stanza 3:

The next man looking ‘cross the way

Saw one of his church

And couldn’t bring himself to give

The fire his stick of birch.

In this stanza, the poet describes another sort of tension prevailing in the story which is discrimination based on religious differences, also known as bigotry.“The next man” refused to give his log into the fire because he saw a man sitting around who did not belong to his Church and as such, does not share his religious ideology.

This religious difference held his heart from giving his log to the fire which can save him along with the person who belongs to a different religious group.

Stanza 4:

The third one sat in tattered clothes,

He gave his coat a hitch.

Why should his log be put to use

To warm the idle rich?

In this stanza, the poet introduces “ the third one sat in tattered clothes” which meant that this man is poor and as his clothes are tattered so he must be struggling more than the others in this cold weather.

The poet further describes that this third man pulls his cloth closer to his body “He gave his coat a hitch”, because he was cold and yet, refused to give his log to save the dying fire as he didn’t want to help the “idle rich”. In this stanza, the poet showed the discrimination based on the economic standard of different individuals.

Stanza 5:

The rich man just sat back and thought

Of the wealth he had in store

And how to keep what he had earned

From the lazy shiftless poor.

In this stanza, the poet says that while the poor man refused to help this “idle rich”, the latter isn’t really bothered as he is busy calculating as to “how to keep what he had earned/ From the lazy shiftless poor”. By “what he had earned” the poet is actually referring to the log that he has with him.

The thing to be noted in these two stanzas is that both poor and the rich has the prejudice about the other of being “idle” and “lazy”.

Stanza 6:

The black man’s face bespoke revenge

As the fire passed from his sight.

For all he saw in his stick of wood

Was a chance to spite the white.

This stanza depicts the emotions of hatred and revenge that rises from the discrimination done to him. These strong emotions of revenge turns the poor black man, supposedly a victim, into an abuser who even after having the resource to save the life of all along with himself, chooses to suffer rather than help a white man.

He sees this as an opportunity “to spite the white” rather than save his life. Thus, the only opportunity that the black man has of saving his life he wastes it in the quest of taking revenge from the white.

Stanza 7:

The last man of this forlorn group

Did nought except for gain.

Giving only to those who gave

Was how he played the game.

This second last stanza introduces the last man of the group who as the line “Did nought except for gain” suggests is a business man. As such he will not spend his resources without making sure that he has gained something in return. He was ready to give “only to those who gave”.

Whereas, the line “Was how he played the game” suggests that each individual character of this story took the only chance of saving their life, as a game in which they are to defeat their enemies even at the cost of their lives. It’s important to win and make sure that the opponent suffers rather than save his own life.

Stanza 8:

Their logs held tight in death’s still hands

Was proof of human sin.

They didn’t die from cold without

They died from the cold within.

This stanza brings a conclusion to the whole story. Just like the other traditional parable, the concluding stanza of this poem, highlights the moral of the whole story and stated the consequences brought by the actions of these characters, who owing to their prejudices and their ideas of discrimination based on petty differences, went into the arms of death rather than saving their life by saving the lives of others.

According to the poet in this stanza, the act of discrimination is the act of human sin which ultimately leads to death. The last two lines of the poem, brings the whole concept of the story narrated that it is the coldness of heart and a lack of human spirit that kills humanity as a whole and not the cold outside. Do check out the detailed analysis of The Cold Within by James Patrick Kinney here.

The Cold Within: About the poem

Irish American poet, James Patrick Kinney uses his poetic parable, ‘The Cold Within’to illustrate the folly of falling prey to discrimination that shortchanges our own humanity.

Written in the 1960s- during the African American Civil Rights movement (1954-1968) , Kinney was outraged by inhuman discriminatory attitudes at the time and wrote this poem to prompt some serious soul searching. How often are we wise enough to rise above our egos? How foolish are we when we give in to our prejudices? Its message is relevant even today, when we face divisive outlooks in the world that lead to hatred and violence. The poem is a reminder to overcome our personal demons and be open to the wisdom of an egalitarianview – an attitude where everyone is considered equal in worth.

Kinney’s narrative poem tells a story to protest against bigotry and racism. The piece comprises of 8 quatrains — 4 lines per stanza with an approximate abcb end rhyme scheme. ‘The Cold Within‘ uses simple language and structure to ensure the message is not diluted.  Given the delicate subject matter, note Kinney’s skillful use of visual imagery to engage the reader through:

Environment:In dark and bitter cold (Line 2) ; the dying fire (Line 5)

Mannerisms:The first man held his back (Line 6); He gave his coat a hitch (Line 14)

Physical appearance:He noticed one was black (Line 8); The third one sat in tattered clothes (Line 13)

The delivery too is straightforward — no fancy words or meandering metaphors. We see allegories in the wood logs which can be seen to represent a person’s abilities and resources; while the fire itself symbolizes the common good. Another language device used by Kinney is Personification — where you give personal characteristics to something non-human. He does it with Death — by speaking of Death having cold hands.

Their sticks held tight in death’s stilled hands  (Line 29)

Kinney does not preach; he wants the reader to draw inferences from the visual and symbolical cues that he gives each character to arrive at a conclusion — the futility of exclusion.

The original citation of the poem The Cold Within is unavailable, but a letter from Kinney’s widow to an advice column tracks the interesting story behind its distribution. It seems that Kinney submitted the poem to many publications but it was rejected as being “too controversial for the time”. Still the poem with its compelling message spread quietly — shared in gatherings, over the radio and other informal channels. Somewhere in this, the authorship of James Patrick Kinney was lost and for a few decades, the source was cited as ‘Anonymous’. Kinney’s wife and son however brought his contribution to light. In the early 2000s, the Liguorian (an American based Catholic magazine) became the first commercial publication to publish this poem while correctly accrediting the author.

‘The Cold Within’: Explanation by Stanza

First Stanza:

Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.

We open up to a bleak tableau. The poet recounts a tale he has heard, of six persons caught together in the grip of a severe winter. Each of them probably had a single stick of wood.

Note the poet’s use of the word ‘humans’; he wants to draw attention to the gathering as specific individuals, rather than as a collective group. They were ‘trapped by happenstance’ implying no escape from a situation created by chance. The adjectives ‘dark’ and ‘bitter’ describing the cold add to the ominous feeling.

Second Stanza:

Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.

The second stanza cuts into a key character in this story — the dying fire. The group’s prospects do not look good. In the heart of winter keeping warm is critical to survival. The fire offers a chance for salvation if each person would use their respective logs to feed it. The dying fire is a silent appeal to the group to help themselves by helping each other.

The next verses reveal how the situation unfolds. We find that the first person withheld his log from the fire only because it would benefit a black person. This is racism, where there is discrimination because of a person’s race. The man will not even warm himself if someone he looks down upon — simply because of skin color — will gain.

Third Stanza

The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.

We move on. The second person looked across the fire and saw someone who he knew didn’t share his religious ideology. And just because of that, he can’t bear to give up his log to the communal fire. This is bigotry, which speaks of intolerance to a person because they do not share the same opinions or ideas.

Fourth Stanza

The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?

The focus now shifts. Here is a person who seems poor. His tattered (old and torn) clothes in the cold weather hint at poverty. He perhaps felt the cold more than the others as we notice that ‘he gave his coat a hitch’ —adjusting it closer to his body to wry out some warmth from the inadequate clothing. But here too is a dead end. We see that he is a victim of classism — or discrimination based on social or economic class — considering those favorably placed than him to be ‘idle’. He is defensive and in his eyes, the rich do not deserve his meager ration and he will not part with his stick.

Fifth Stanza

The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor

At cross purposes, we find the next exhibit of apathy — the rich man. Caught up hoarding his riches in his head, he is oblivious to reality. Greed blinds him as he selfishly connives to keep his wealth. He even miserly holds onto his stick, keeping it from the poor whom he perceives as aimless and lazy.

Sixth Stanza

The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.

Even the victim becomes an abuser here. We know the black person had experienced racism. Revenge for the atrocities he had faced from the white people was the only thing on his mind. One wonders if he had already resigned himself to dying — he saw ‘the fire pass from his sight’— he realized that the fire was fast getting spent. But the spark of human kindness had died in him and literally too, he chose to let the group’s fire die. He would perish, but he would take the others he hated down with him as well.

Seventh stanza

The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.

For the first time in the poem ‘The Cold Within’, the poet foreshadows the fate of the group by finally describing the bunch as ‘forlorn’ or hopeless. Until then, the poet had reserved judgement, allowing the reader instead to examine each individual in turn and derive his/her own conclusion.

Unfortunately, we find that the last person also perpetuates the vicious circle of inertia. There is a word for this person’s attitude — and it is not in the English language. ‘Mahmilapinapatai’, is a word in the indigenous South American language of the Yaghan people. It refers to a look shared between people, where each hopes that the other will do something that all of them want, but none are willing to initiate. In giving just to get, the last person played a losing move in the ‘game’ — a metaphor for the game of Life.

Eighth Stanza

Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.

We witness the grim aftermath of the group’s rigidity of spirit. Death comes and it is personified here with stilled hands. Each individual became their own agent of death — their hands frozen stiff with their refusal to act. The fact that each of them still possessed their firewood when they died suggests the twisted motives in retaining their firewood — proof enough of sin. The final lines abound with Irony. We realize it was not the cold weather outside that really killed the group after all, it was the cold in their hearts, the lack of warm human spirits — the cold within.

Bonus Read on James Patrick Kinney:

Kinney got recognition posthumously (after his death). Not much is formally written about him, but here is an interview about James Patrick Kinney where his son speaks exclusively of the man, his poetry and his legacy.  The inspiring interview reveals a man with character and integrity and is worth a look.

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