Enterprise poem by Nissim Ezekiel-Poem, Meaning, Summary, and Analysis

Nissim Ezekiel- Poet Introduction

Nissim Ezekiel was born in a Marathi-speaking Jewish family in Mumbai. He is one of the most popular postcolonial figures in English literature in India. Many critics often regard him as the ‘Father’ of Modern Indian English poetry.

He was not only a poet but also an actor, playwright, editor and art critic. He was a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award in 1983 and the prestigious Padmashri award in 1988.

The poem ‘Enterprise’ is taken from his poetry collection The Unfinished Man published in 1960. The poem is an allegory of man’s unending quest for meaning and fulfillment in life.

Enterprise Poem by Nissim Ezekiel

It started as a pilgrimage
Exalting minds and making all
The burdens light, The second stage
Explored but did not test the call.
The sun beat down to match our rage.

We stood it very well, I thought,
Observed and put down copious notes
On things the peasants sold and bought
The way of serpents and of goats.
Three cities where a sage had taught

But when the differences arose
On how to cross a desert patch,
We lost a friend whose stylish prose
Was quite the best of all our batch.
A shadow falls on us and grows.

Another phase was reached when we
Were twice attacked, and lost our way.
A section claimed its liberty
To leave the group. I tried to pray.
Our leader said he smelt the sea

We noticed nothing as we went,
A straggling crowd of little hope,
Ignoring what the thunder meant,
Deprived of common needs like soap.
Some were broken, some merely bent.

When, finally, we reached the place,
We hardly know why we were there.
The trip had darkened every face,
Our deeds were neither great nor rare.
Home is where we have to gather grace

Stanza wise summary of the poem Enterprise

In the first stanza, the speaker says that his journey along with his companions started as a pilgrimage. He praises the minds (exalted minds) of the pilgrims, as this pilgrimage makes their burdens light.

He says this is the second stage which they are still exploring but their call or purpose is not tested. It is the peak of noon when the sun’s rays beat down to match their rage.

The speaker says in the second stanza that he thinks they made the journey well (stood it very well). On the way, they note down their observations (put down copious notes) of the items sold and bought by the peasants. They also observe the path taken by the serpents and goats and visit three cities where some sage had advocated his teachings.

In the third stanza, the speaker says that when differences arose on how to cross a desert patch, a friend who recited modern prose (stylish prose) which was the best in their batch, left the group. Soon it is evening and the shadow falls on them and grows.

Next, the speaker describes the difficulty of their journey. He says that they reached another stage in their journey where they were attacked twice and lost their way. Some people in the group took the liberty to leave and stop their pilgrimage midway. The speaker says he tried to pray while the leader of their group said that he smelt the sea.

The fifth stanza records the speaker’s experiences in this journey. He says that they were so engrossed that they didn’t even notice anything as they went. They were a wavering (straggling) crowd who had little hope. They ignored the thunder, were deprived of basic needs like soap, and were emotionally broken and bent.

In the final stanza, the speaker says that they finally reached their destination. By the time they did, they had even forgotten why they were there. The long trip in the sun had tanned their skin and as a result, had darkened every face. He then says that their deeds were neither great nor rare. He concludes that home is where they have to gather grace.

Themes in the poem Enterprise

Central Theme of the poem-Enterprise

The poem ‘Enterprise’ is read as an allegory, which means that the ‘Pilgrimage’ could be a symbolic representation subject to various interpretations.

On the surface, the main theme of the poem seems to be spirituality. The poet gives a contrasting view on the same. He talks about the dedication, effort, and sacrifice required for a pilgrimage and in his perspective, the futility of it all.

He begins the poem on a happy, excited note but towards the end, he makes it obvious to the readers that he would rather have stayed at home than embark on an exhausting journey to some distant holy land.

The poet is quite scornful of the idea of a pilgrimage. He may be implying that God would be happy with us staying at home and being good to each other rather than going on a long pilgrimage just to please him.

Another theme of this poem is the journey of life. The various stages of the ‘Pilgrimage’ could allude to the various stages of life. The pilgrimage undertaken by the pilgrims requires sacrifice and compromise.

They are subject to harsh weather and have to give up basic necessities like soap. They think that this is the right attitude because it is a holy journey and the merits of a pilgrimage are gained when one faces all challenges with an uncomplaining attitude.

Thus, the poet tries to convey that when we are young, we are ambitious and aspire to do well but as we grow older, we realize that life is not a smooth ride and we have to overcome many obstacles on the way. There is a hint of hope and idealism at the beginning of the poem but the journey ends in disappointment and despair.

Line-by-line interpretation of the poem Enterprise

It started as a pilgrimage
Exalting minds and making all
The burdens light, The second stage
Explored but did not test the call.
The sun beat down to match our rage.

The opening lines of the poem Enterprise, indicate that the poet is talking about a long and hard journey. The trip began as a pilgrimage. The pilgrims were in an ecstatic state of mind (exalting minds) and with this excitement, they focused on the goal rather than the journey itself. This made all their emotional and physical burdens feel light.

The sentence ‘the second stage explored but did not test the call’ means that the pilgrims were in the second phase of their spiritual journey. They were still exploring their faith but their faith and endurance (the call) were not yet tested.

Abruptly, the poet switches his narration to the condition of the weather. They were traveling at midday when the sun’s heat was the highest. Here, the word ‘rage’ could mean the frenzy of the crowd and not violent anger. Hence, the sun’s intense heat matched the pilgrims’ energy and determination.

We stood it very well, I thought,
Observed and put down copious notes
On things the peasants sold and bought
The way of serpents and of goats.
Three cities where a sage had taught

The poet says that he thinks all of them braved the difficulties of the journey very well (stood it very well). As they traveled, they looked around and noted down in great detail (copious notes) the items being traded between the peasants.

He also says that they observed ‘The way of serpents and of goats’. It could literally mean that the path they took was the one used by snakes and goats alike. This may also be a metaphor for the different types of people traveling the roads.

‘Serpents’ and ‘goats’ have opposite personalities. The former is a predator and the latter is prey. This means that people from all classes and castes, rich or poor, honest or dishonest went on this pilgrimage. In the end, he says that they visited three cities, where some unspecified sage had taught and given his discourse.

But when the differences arose
On how to cross a desert patch,
We lost a friend whose stylish prose
Was quite the best of all our batch.
A shadow falls on us and grows.

Next, the poet describes a disagreement among the travelers which led to an unfavorable outcome. They were trying to cross a strip of the desert when some of them began to argue about the approach they should adopt. While doing so, it seems that one of them left the group. That person was their friend who also wrote the best modern (stylish) prose in their batch.

The poet is thus portraying how petty quarrels could lead to dire consequences. He then says that it became dusk as they moved along (A shadow falls on us and grows). It could also be a metaphor for the shadow of doubt and uncertainty that slowly crept into the group.

Another phase was reached when we
Were twice attacked, and lost our way.
A section claimed its liberty
To leave the group. I tried to pray.
Our leader said he smelt the sea

Here, the poet talks about the hardships the pilgrims faced. He says that they reached another stage (phase) of their journey when they were attacked twice and lost their way. Though it is not clear by whom they were attacked, we can assume that the attackers were either dacoit looting pilgrims or wild animals.

Also, a small part of the group separated themselves from the traveling party, leaving the pilgrimage half done. This shows that the group which was once united began to break up.

Meanwhile, the poet tried to pray, probably to calm his nerves after facing many uncertainties. Then he says that the leader of their group said that he smelled the sea. This could be a metaphor to say that they were nearing their destination.

We noticed nothing as we went,
A straggling crowd of little hope,
Ignoring what the thunder meant,
Deprived of common needs like soap.
Some were broken, some merely bent.

Later, the poet says that the pilgrims were so absorbed in their journey that they didn’t notice anything else as they traveled. This is in contrast to the second stanza where they were very alert and paid attention to their surroundings.

However, now their enthusiasm had dimmed slightly and they were just moving on ahead without much hope. ‘Little hope’ could refer to the demotivation the travelers felt as there was no significant progress in their journey.

They were also exposed to harsh weather. Though they didn’t have sufficient cover or shelter, they had to just ignore the rain and storm (Ignoring what the thunder meant) and move on like they were unaffected by the elements.

They were in such a sorry state that they didn’t even have access to basic necessities like soap which is essential to maintain good hygiene. The poet then says that towards the end of the journey some of them were completely exhausted (broken) while the others were almost tired and emotionally drained. (merely bent).

When, finally, we reached the place,
We hardly know why we were there.
The trip had darkened every face,
Our deeds were neither great nor rare.
Home is where we have to gather grace

In the last stanza of the poem, the poet says that they finally reached their destination. Though the journey had been tiring and challenging, when they reached it, they did not know why they were in that place.

The poet is probably implying the irony of the situation since nobody would go through so much trouble without a particular purpose. It could also be a metaphor to refer to the decisions one makes without really thinking about the consequences or without having a goal in mind.

Towards the end, the poet says that the trip had darkened every face. This means that the harsh sunlight had tanned their skin and faces. It could also be a metaphor for the disappointment and frustration the pilgrims felt. This implies the futility of their labor since when they finally reached their destination, they still felt lost.

Towards the end, the poet admits that their deeds were neither great nor rare. This means that despite facing adversities, their journey was ultimately useless and meaningless.

Finally, he ends his narration by saying that ‘Home’ is where they have to gather grace. This sentence could mean that instead of going on a long fruitless pilgrimage, the pilgrims could have stayed at home and been good to their fellow beings. This would help them in earning as much merit as they would get from this pilgrimage.

Analysis of the poem Enterprise

In the poem Enterprise, Nissim Ezekiel portrays an interesting contrast between a man’s need to attain fulfillment (a pilgrimage) and the futility of the same. Since it is an allegory, the interpretation is left to the minds of the readers. The speaker in the poem can be assumed to be the poet himself.

The poem is titled ‘Enterprise’. Here, the word ‘enterprise’ connotes two meanings. The first could be the complexity of the undertaking i.e. the pilgrimage. Throughout the poem, the poet makes it very clear that the pilgrimage they went on was difficult and risky.

The travelers had to battle the harsh weather and also make an effort to stay united and help each other. They had to forgo many things including basic necessities and comfort. Their physical, mental, and emotional strengths were tested in this pilgrimage.

The second meaning or idea could be the travelers knew that they had to make an arduous journey yet they willingly took on the challenge. The travelers showed they had the ‘enterprise’ to deal with difficult situations.

However, despite the challenges and obstacles they overcame, the poet acknowledges that what they did was ‘neither great nor rare’. By this statement, the poet is trying to convey that all their trouble was for naught.

This is due to the reason that by the time they reached their destination none of them knew why they were there in the first place. All they got were a broken spirit, weak bodies, and darkened faces. They finally realized that their journey had no purpose.

Though they reached their goal, they didn’t find the fulfillment they hoped for. In the last line of the poem the poet admits that had they stayed at home and performed penance, they would have earned more grace. Thus, the poet highlights that instead of embarking on a long, tiring pilgrimage the pilgrims could attain the same merits at home.

The poem could also be touching upon human nature and how people respond and behave when faced with adversities. Initially, the pilgrims were united for their ‘enterprise’ but later there were clashes of ego which made them wonder about the motive and reasoning behind their journey.

Thus, the poet conveys that even the most idealistic ‘enterprise’ can come crumbling down due to the seeds of doubt and pride.

Poem Structure and Poetic Devices in the poem Enterprise

The poem is written in six stanzas of five lines each, thus, is thirty lines long. It follows a particular rhyme scheme of ABABA in every stanza and has a uniform metrical pattern.

Every stanza also ends with an unrelated standalone line. Though it is not clear why it is so, it could indicate that the poet was trying to emphasize a particular point through those statements.

The entire poem except the last line is written in iambic tetrameter which means every line has four sets of two beats each.

Enjambment:

“Exalting minds and making all

The burdens light, The second stage

Explored but did not test the call.”

Metaphor:

“The way of serpents and of goats.”

“A shadow falls on us and grows.”

“Our leader said he smelt the sea”

Epigram:

It refers to a short, surprising and witty statemen, usually a standalone line

E.g., “Home is where we have to gather grace”

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