The Cold Within by James Patrick Kinney
Six humans trapped in happenstance
In dark and bitter cold,
Each one possessed a stick of wood,
Or so the story’s told.
Meaning .. By some coincidence, six humans find themselves trapped in an area that is dark, and cold. Each of them has a stick of wood.
Their dying fire in need of logs,
The first woman held hers back,
For of the faces around the fire,
She noticed one was black.
Meaning .. The fire they have lit is running out of firewood. It needs to be refueled with fresh logs. The first woman can put the stick she is holding on to the fire, but she feels otherwise. She discovers that there was a black man in the gang. Racial prejudice overtakes her common sense, and she feels her stick shouldn’t be ‘wasted’ to bring warmth and comfort to a ‘wretched’ black man. She holds on to her stick.
The next man looking across the way
Saw not one of his church,
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
Meaning .. The next looks around to the group, and discerns that no one from them belonged to his church. The difference in the religious dispensation makes him feel that they are not truly his friends, and so don’t deserve any altruistic consideration. He decides not to part with his piece of birch. Religious parochialism bedevils his wisdom
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?
Meaning .. There was another man, whose attire showed that he was not well-off. The other members of the group appeared to be relatively better off than him. A feeling of jealousy gripped his sense of fairness, he decided not to part with his own piece of log. He reasoned that being a poor man, he doesn’t need to sacrifice his wood for the comfort of the other members of the group, who were better off than him.
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.
Meaning .. There was a member in the group who was quite affluent. The fire was slowly dying, but he was engrossed in his own selfish thoughts. Instead of worrying about the fire that was dying, he pondered ways to keep his wealth out of the reach of the poor, the crooks, and the predators. He didn’t bother to put his piece of wood on the fire.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from sight,
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
Meaning .. The fire was all but extinguished. The cold began to bite. The black man sat there seething in anger against the white people who had decided not to part with their pieces of wood to keep the fire alight. Rage against the white occupied his mind, rather than any introspection.
The last man of this forlorn group
Did naught except for gain,
Giving only to those who gave,
Was how he played the game.
Meaning .. The last man of the group was a very selfish character. He never did any good to anyone , unless it was certain that the latter would reciprocate in kind. This principle of reciprocity had been his creed all his life. So, he could not part with his log, because there was no way others would repay him for this gift.
The 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.
– by James Patrick Kinney –
Meaning .. Finally, the fire went out and the ghoulish cold descended on the area. The people were all frozen to death. Even in their last moment, they held their pieces of log tightly in their hands. In hindsight, it can be clearly seen that the cold, selfish, and indifferent attitude of the members of the group caused their death. They could have easily staved off the painful end by being sensible, normal, and benign, but they allowed the dark side of their nature to blind their judgment and good sense. The cold from their within caused their death, not the cold of the weather.
Theme of the poem .. The poem is a pointer to some of the evils that besmirch the human race. Greed, lack of sympathy, aloofness to other people’s suffering, intolerance towards other faiths, racial prejudice have brought so much misery to us, yet we do not seem to mend our ways. Each of the different characters in the story embodies one particular failing of human character, and together they bring doom and death to the whole group. The death due to extreme cold is excruciatingly painful, and each of them knew they can’t survive without the fire. Yet, blinded by their insane stupidity, they all chose not to part with their sticks. It is a sad commentary on human nature, its failings, and depravity. We, all, suffer from such blights, but do not muster courage to get over it. This is really tragic.
Question 1 ..Can you guess how the core message of the poem is so relevant to the world community?
Answer … Aloofness and a general disregard for other’s suffering clouds the conscience of the individuals, as much as it does to the nations that make the global community. Countries invariably keep the interest of their own first before considering the collective interest. In areas like environmental pollution, ground water depletion, trade, refugee crisis, Intellectual Property Rights etc., we see nations ignoring the looming danger to earth for the sake of narrow national gains. Sadly, the United States has emerged as the single most offender of the notion of global community living. Every other nation does the same vile thing, may be to a lesser degree. When the signs of Global Warming look so pervasive, we all drag our feet on the matter of limiting our own emissions.
The campers in the poem ‘The Cold Within’ perished because even in the face of imminent death due to extreme cold, they let the fire die without fuel. Everyone among the folks demurred to part with their logs, and the fire died, so did they. This is what happening in the world today. All nations barring a few in western Europe lag in curbing CO2 emission. We all spend humongous amounts on fighter jets, where as our fight against poverty remains resource-starved.
There is a lesson to be learnt from this poem — self interest must not take precedence over collective interest.
Question 2 .. Do you think the name ‘The Cold Within’ is appropriate for the poem? Justify.
The title is really apt for the story. Each member of the stranded crowd were human beings bereft of their conscience and soul. They were too selfish and too jealous. There was no warmth in them. This made them blind to the need for keeping the fire going, although they knew a great catastrophe was knocking at the door. This lack of warmth led to none of them giving their pieces of fuel. The fire died, so did they. The death was caused by the ‘cold’ within their hearts — not so much by the cold outside. What a pity!