Introduction and Structure of the Poem
Margaret Atwood’s ‘A Night In The Royal Ontario Museum’ is a non-metrical, non-rhyming poem composed of multiple fragments of varying length. The poem can be divided into three parts: lines 1-7, 8-30, and 31-49, and are indicated by the capital letters of ‘Who …’ in line 1, ‘Under …’ in line 8 and ‘I …’ in line 31. The last part is further indicated by the presence of a punctuation mark at the end of line 30. There is a certain rhythm, but no consistent pattern of sound and very few cases of alliteration. This poetic structure emphasises the semantic contents of the poem. Especially words at end of lines receive attention, their significance accented by the poem’s fragmented character.
Part one of the poem poses a question: ‘Who locked me into … ?’. It serves as an introduction to the situation, dilemma and key imagery of the poem. Part two constitutes a tour of the museum; it is the museum and the visual aspect that dominate this part of the poem. Part three, however, is a tour of the mind, the main focus being the impressions and reactions of the speaker – here, also, is a shift in imagery which is auditory, rather than visual.
The poem has no less than two chronological structures, interwoven with one another: one is the progression of the wanderings and impressions of the speaker from the moment she perceives that she has been locked up in the museum for the night; the other is described by the historical exhibits observed by the speaker that, albeit not in accurate chronological order, descend backwards into time, from the classical and the Native American and Canadian Indian civilisations to mastodons, fossils and minerals. There is also a progression in proportion within the poem; from the massive dome of the museum across the remains and artefacts of human civilisation to the minuscule world of geology.
© 1996, 2002, 2018, 2019 Kirstin Sørensen