Tuesday, April 14, 2015


In The Century Quilt, Marilyn Nelson Waniek intertwines a deeper meaning into the poetic story of different quilts over time. While the blankets hold significance to the speaker in it of themselves, they also display memories and hidden meanings. As Waniek was writing this story for a particular person, Sarah Mary Taylor, it is quite plausible that she intended the poem to encourage her friend in her quilting endeavors. She might have written the poem as a reminder that blankets and quilts will continue to travel with and comfort generations. They go to war (lines 3-4), they are played with by children and grandchildren (lines 11-12), they serve as reminders to the sweet memories of the past (line 17, lines 24-25), and they are covers, under which marvelous and bittersweet dreams and memories are relived (lines 37-43). Waniek employs literary devices such as imagery, diction, and tone to develop the complex meanings that the speaker attributes to “The Century Quilt” as well as the memories it brings.

Waniek engages diction and imagery, specifically referencing color, to describe scenes and evoke feelings. She uses color to add deeper connotations to the meaning and tone of the poem. The reader is able to immediately identify that the “army green (blanket)” (line 3), signifies that the speaker’s father has been in the military and thus the speaker likely knows of the hardships of war, yet this memory of the comforting quilt seems sweet. Perhaps Waniek intends to demonstrate how quilts can be a source of comfort in times of turmoil. By using precise color descriptions Waniek demonstrates the vivid precision one can recall memories of quilts while enthralled in the colorful covers; for example she uses “Van Dyke ” (line 15), to describe certain squares of the quilt, “yellowbrown” (line 17), to describe mother’s cheeks, “burnt umber” (line 39), to describe father’s pride, and, “ochre” (line 40) to describe mother’s gentleness. The speaker has precise memories that these colors on the quilt incite in her. Waniek adds another element demonstrating through the, “brown squares” (line 15), “white [squares]” (line 16), “yellow sisters” (line 25), and, “grandfather’s white family” (line 26), that all ethnicities and age groups can enjoy the pleasures of a quilt. Waniek uses diction and imagery to display this deeper familial and cultural meaning inside the colorful memories.

Marilyn Waniek uses diction and tone to take the reader through a roller coaster of bittersweet feelings. She starts the poem off with a gleeful tone by having the speaker and her sister “in love” (line 1) with a specific blanket. Beginning with this first line, Waniek controls the diction in such a way that the tone is continuously cheery throughout the first stanza with ideas such as living with a favorite relative (line 5), visiting loving relatives (line 8), finding favorite blankets (line 7), cuddling with them (line 10), and “play[ing]” childish games with them (lines 11-12). At first the second stanza brings an upsetting tone to the poem as death is introduced (line 13). But rather than keeping the reader distressed, the speaker is comforted that she has found a quilt that is worthy of her dying with. Waniek then turns this stanza’s tone to a sense of peace by relating how this specific blanket’s characteristics bring sweet memories and comforting ideas. The speaker speaks of death with sweet diction saying the blanket would, “caress [her] into the silence.” Waniek’s skillful use of diction leads the reader through gleeful, exciting, slightly worrisome, and peaceful tones, all pointedly giving the reader insight into the feelings and memories of the speaker.

The next stanza starts off with an excited yet dreamy tone (lines 21-22) and continues it through the next five lines. Waniek uses lines 23-27 to demonstrate to the reader the speaker’s love and respect towards her family, while stanza four finalizes the bittersweet memories held within and created by quilts. It begins with a cheerful tone using diction such as “beautiful” (line 30), and, “giggled and danced” (line 31). In line 42, the speaker hints perhaps at a lost child, but also that she will soon be able to see that child, and indeed that she might see him in her dreams. Thus, while the stanza concludes with deep and somewhat forlorn thoughts, the sense of sweet peace is made deeper by the powerful way Waniek manipulates the diction to create certain tones.

As Waniek guides the reader through a forest of hidden meanings, she ends the poem with a sense of purpose. The special familial and cultural meanings hidden within the caresses of The Century Quilt are demonstrated through colorful imagery, thoughtful diction, and a variety of joyful, sobering and comforting tones. Marilyn Waniek skillfully demonstrates the bittersweet exhortations, memories and complex memories of the speaker tone to develop the complex meanings that the speaker attributes to the century quilt as well as the memories it brings.