Critical Analysis of A Small Pain in My Chest by Michael Mack

Critical Analysis of A Small Pain in My Chest

‘A Small Pain in my Chest’ is Michael Mack’s lyrical cry over the Vietnam War and the uncountable lives it claimed of innocent young soldiers. This poem does not have any vitriolic hatred spewing on paper, but a silent mourning over the loss of humanity which war entails. The anti-war agenda of the poet has been crafted out with much sympathy and poignancy. He does not directly question the ravaging effects of war, but instead takes us in the middle of a battlefield, next to a dying man who does not even have enough water on him to ease his fatal battle wound. Through the eyes of this war ravaged soldier we are made to question the war and its reductive effect on life. Sudden explosions, dead bodies, open craters – the poem draws a heart-rending picture of the war, all through the words of the soldier and our sympathy is garnered by his plight. We are all in unison against war after reading the poem, as our heart goes out to the soldiers who died and their families who will have to cope with the loss on a personal level. The poem also indicates very subtly that the ones who do manage to keep themselves alive till the end of a war are not exactly in the best of health either. The mental health of such soldiers is severely compromised and they carry deep emotional and mental wound of having had seen their fellow comrades suffer and die.

The poet does not employ any far-fetched poetic devices to drive his point home. The same is done by the poet by taking resort to very simple, honest lines which hurt us more piercingly by virtue of their simplicity. The perfect metrical arrangement of the poem has been employed by the poet to make the brutality of war more conspicuous. The poet increases the cruelty and chaos brought by war through the principle of contrast by speaking about it in neatly structured stanzas. This principle of contrast is also utilized by the poet by yoking morning and dead bodies, daylight and darkness of death together in a single matrix in order to sensitize us to the bad aftermath of wars. The fact that the soldier was too young to die has been stressed upon at various points in the poem such as the line – “It’s growing dim and I thought that the day had just begun.” and by referring to him as the soldier-boy, although he was old enough to have a wife.

The poem has two narrators – one is the soldier who narrates his account of being in a war and the actual narrator of the poem whose job is to bring to us the plight of the soldier and make us weep with him in the end.

Poetic Devices

Figures of Speech: 1st stanza: The line ‘And scores of figure on the ground lay still by morning’s light’ is an instance of Hyperbaton. In Hyperbaton, there is an inversion of the regular grammatical order or words in a sentence for the sake of poeticality. Simply put, the quoted words would have been articulated as scores of figure lay still on the ground by morning’s light.

2nd stanza: ‘Small pain in my chest’ is a metaphor of the fatal wound that the solider is suffering from.

5th Stanza: The lines “I looked around to get some aid – the only things I found/Were big deep, craters on the Earth – bodies on the ground.” is an instance of antithesis. An antithesis is said to take place when Contrasted words or ideas are placed together in a balanced form for the sake of emphasis. The soldier looked around for medical help but all he could find was death and destruction caused by war.

Symbolism: The darkness and the cold, which the soldier refers to in this stanza are symbols of his impending death. The wound of the narrator is the symbol of wounded humanity.

Juxtaposition: Michael Mack has utilized the poetic device of juxtaposition very well in the poem. At many points morning and sunlight have been juxtaposed with its opposite death and the darkness and cold which death brings with it.

Rhyme Scheme:‘A Small Pain in my Chest’ is a poem of thirty six lines that has been divided in nine stanzas of four lines each. The rhyme scheme of the poem is very simple. It follows the pattern of aabb, ccdd and so on. The first and the second share the same rhyme as does the third and the fourth line.

Central Idea of the Poem

The central idea which the poem, ‘A small pain in my chest’ by Michael Mack posits is that war is cruel and involves a complete reversal of the laws of Nature. It is cruel because it takes men away from their families and shoves them into the jaws of Death. It is against Nature because it makes young men die way before their time and makes them go through immense physical and mental trauma. Wars reflect terribly on the humanity of a nation. It is indeed very inhuman to let lives go to complete waste just because two nations cannot see each other in the eye on certain matters. This central idea has been worked on in the poem with great craftsmanship by exposing the readers to a young dying soldier and his account of being at war.

Themes of the Poem

The central theme of the poem is the brutality of war. It is one of those life reductive practices which not only nips lives in the bud but also leaves their families destitute and ravages the Earth with craters. This destruction caused by wars has been brought out in the poem by bringing to us the account of a soldier on the last dregs of his life. Through him we come to know of the harsh conditions which war imposes on the soldiers. They have to go without basic amenities such as water and are often without medical help. In most cases, they are left to just die unattended. The soldier in the poem was at least lucky to have the narrator to give him water in his last moments and to hold him after he died. Even the ones who survive the war hardly emerge unscathed. They have to always carry the deep mental and emotional wounds of seeing fellow soldiers lose their lives such as the narrator himself. After reading the poem, one comes to realize how inhuman war is since it turns the sanctity of human life into a farce. The power lust and greed of a few nations at odds with each other becomes so much bigger than the lives of human beings. It is sad to see the number of lives that are sacrificed just for of the benefit of a few people in power. This theme has been ratified in the poem wonderfully by wonderfully juxtaposing morning/sunlight with death and the darkness associated with it at different points in the poem.

From the central theme of the cruelty of war emerges the theme of death. Death looms heavy all through the thirty six lines of the poem. It is there, haunting the soldier with the ‘small pain in his chest’ and it is also there in the descriptions of the dead bodies strewn around every morning, like they mean nothing.

The theme of humanity has also been touched upon in the poem. Humanity has been represented in the poem by the narrator who gives his water to a dying soldier and later holds him and weeps after he dies. The narrator then becomes the symbol of weeping humanity, crying at the loss of so many lives at the battlefield. The large wound of the narrator is symbolic of wounded humanity. It is indeed a violation of humanity that so many young innocent lives are taken even before they could enjoy the gift of life properly.

Tone of the Poem

The tone of the poem is extremely poignant as it deals with the sensitive matter of human lives being wasted at the altar of war. At the heart of the poem, is angst against this inhuman practice. However, this angst is manifested in the poem by adopting a sad, almost helpless tone to make the readers sympathize with soldiers such as the one described in the poem. The poignancy in the tone reaches its peak at the end of the poem which describes the narrator crying at the death of the soldier.


‘A Small Pain in my Chest’ by Michael Mack is an eloquent piece of anti-war poetry that describes the ill effects of war with much pathos through a dying soldier and an emotionally wounded narrator who is left to witness the death.  Sympathy towards the dead and dying soldiers and their families is not the only thing that we feel. We are also enraged at this inhuman practice which claims thousands of lives and thus becomes a mockery of humanity. The aim of making us feel this way has been realized by the poet by bringing to us some very honest words of a man dying on the battlefield. The poetic devices and the style employed by Mack also help the process.

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