The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel

The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel Summary and Analysis of "Sotto Voce"


"Sotto Voce" begins with an admission from the speaker: "I often think of death / But cannot think the thought out to the end, / For that would be the end of thought" (lines 1-3). Even though the speaker is unsure about thinking the thought of death to the end, he believes it will bring him "death or perfect peace," when what he really wants is life, which he sees as "imperfection" (4-5).

The speaker moves on to say that he feels as if his life is "only partly lived" (6). He repeats that he thinks often about death. The speaker then moves into a self-aware stanza, in which he reveals to the reader that "these are fragments of a poem" (10). The speaker sees the lines of poetry as "broken limbs" which are "scattered" by a god who doesn't know how to create.

Following the first two stanzas, the speaker laments that he does not have as much control over language as he would like to: "I cannot mould the language as desired" (14). He then reveals that he only half-feels emotions such as desire. The final three lines are repeated lines from earlier in the poem: "I often think of death, / Death or perfect peace, / And life is imperfection" (19-21).


"Sotto Voce" plays with paradoxes, a common trope in Ezekiel's early poems. The first few lines of the poem present us with an impossible situation: the speaker wishes to contemplate death but believes that thinking of death will result in "the end of thought," or physical death. Thus, the speaker sees himself thinking about something that essentially cannot exist. It is an impossible situation. In the same vein, life can be seen as a triumph over death and yet it is meaningless without it. Death acts as a fence around this poem that the speaker can look over but is afraid to look for long.

The tone of this poem is one of longing—the reader is left unsure if that longing is for death or "perfect peace" in the face of life's imperfections. The title of the poem adds to the tone: "sotto voce" means in a quiet voice, as if not to be overheard. This implies a certain level of blatant honesty and intimacy with the reader. "Sotto voce" is also a musical term in Western music, which places this poem within a Western musical tradition.

After the first two stanzas, there is a shift in tone and voice in which the speaker adopts the voice of the poet. The speaker compares himself to a god: "Lines of poetry like broken limbs / Scattered by a god who cannot make a man. / I cannot think the thought out to the end" (11-13). In these lines, the speaker laments being unable to think of death, since all of his descriptions about death come up half-empty.

Finally, the speaker endows himself with the power of a god in this poem, which introduces questions about the relation between poetic creation and the godlike power to create life. The poet compares his imperfect creation—this poem, "Sotto Voce"—to God's imperfect creation, life. This theme also links up to questions of skepticism and religion, which are also prominent in Ezekiel's early work.