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When the Going Gets Tough
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When the Going Gets Tough


Poem 4: 'Song of the Worms'


We have been underground too long,
we have done our work,
we are many and one,
we remember when we were human.

The Poet: Margaret Atwood (1939-)

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1939. She spent most of her early life in rural Ontario and Quebec. She studied at the University of Toronto, and worked as a university lecturer, market researcher and literary critic to fund her early writing career. Her development as a novelist and poet coincided with the worldwide rise of the women's movement in the early 1970s. Novels like The Edible Woman, Life Before Man, Bodily Harm and The Handmaid's Tale have established her as Canada's most respected novelist and poet.

The Poem

'Song of the Worms' was written in the 1960s. The traditions and disciplines expressed in 'Vitaļ Lampada' had almost completely vanished in the aftermath of two cataclysmic world wars. The values and aspirations of social minorities who 'have sung but no one has listened' are celebrated, and the power of popular movements to change the world is recognised.

The poem draws a general comparison between worms and downtrodden groups of human beings - 'we remember when we were human'. Nothing could be more despised than the worms who live 'among roots and stones' and are accustomed to brutal treatment - 'We know what a boot looks like / when seen from underneath' - and yet the poem is their song, their hymn, their hope that they will triumph in the end because there are so many of them - 'fences will topple, / brick walls ripple and fall'.

Like 'Vitaļ Lampada', 'Song of the Worms' is a poem that works as a group anthem, encouraging individuals to work together. But in contrast to the formal structure and rhyme scheme of 'Vitaļ Lampada', its form is loose and its central image powerfully individual - reminding us that as times change, poetry must change too.

What Simon Armitage Said

'There was a time when poetry was written about kings and queens and it was written for kings and queens and it was in praise of them... These days poets tend to side with the little people, tend to put their arms around the oppressed and the powerless.

'This poem could be about the Russian Revolution. It could be a poem about the miner's strike. It could be a poem about environmental protest... not necessarily about them but applied to those situations. People who have been put down, crushed, suppressed, underground, boots trampling down on top of them, suddenly deciding, "we're not having this anymore".'

Simon Armitage - Passwords 1998