The Cold Within Summary by James Patrick Kinney

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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.


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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.

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