The poem the ‘Bereavement of the Lion-Keeper’ explores the intensity and intimacy of a relationship between a lion and his keeper while also portraying the challenges of dealing with death and abandonment. The keeper faces a transition in his identity following his lion’s death, a sense of abandonment and an unwelcoming and cold world outside of his comforts with the lion.
The poet explores the intensity and closeness of the keeper and lion’s relationship throughout the poem while portraying the respect the keeper has for the animal. The egalitarian relationship of keeper and animal comes through clearly in the line ‘just keepers and captives’. The alliteration of the words ‘keepers’ and ‘captives’ displays the equality between the two characters, portraying them as companions rather than dependents. This is the first idea introduced in the poem and is clearly emphasized in the first line itself ‘Who stayed, long after his pay stopped’. The line highlights the way the keeper regards the lion as more than part of his job and develops a very close bond and attachment to it. Through writing of the small detail and attention with which the keeper attends to the lion’s needs, the poet portrays the extent of the relationship between the characters as seen in the line ‘cut it small to feed him, since his teeth were gone.’ The simplicity of the statement ‘teeth were gone’ not only shows the lion’s ageing but also insinuates that the keeper does not want to face the reality of the situation and almost skims over the fact that his lion is growing old. Furthermore, we see how ironically, the keeper treats his lion like a baby while he is dying.
Not only does the poet convey the intimate relationship of the characters, he also displays the way it forms the keeper’s identity. The poet portrays the lion and the keeper as one entity through the line ‘growing old together’ displaying the companionship and intimacy between the two characters. Because of this, when the lion dies, the keeper loses this sense of belonging and homeliness, becoming an ‘old man’ in the last stanza of the poem in contrast to the ‘lion-keeper’ in the title. The word ‘who’ appears as the first word of each stanza symbolizing the emptiness of the keeper’s identity while he transitions from ‘keeper’ to ‘old man’. We also see how the poem changes from past to present tense in the final stanza signalling the keeper’s sudden realization that he is alone and pulling him back from his comforting memories with the lion. Furthermore, the poet suggests the lion will always be a significant part of the keeper’s life through the final line of the poem where the keeper sees himself ‘without a lion.’ This line represents the keeper’s unwavering devotion to the lion, as he continues to link himself and his life to the creature even when it is dead.
The poet heightens this sense of a loss of identity and comfort by portraying the world outside of the zoo as evil and suggesting the keeper has been abandoned. The poet portrays the outside world as cold and unwelcoming through the fact that the keeper ‘begged for meat in the market-place’. The word ‘begged’ insinuates he is inferior to the outside world while the alliteration in the line juxtaposes the noise and activity of a market place through the soothing ‘m’ sounds which parallel to the comfort of the keeper’s inner world with the lion. We see alliteration signalling the affection of lion and keeper again through the phrase ‘curled close to him wrapped in his warmth’. The similarity of sounds in the line represents the closeness of the relationship while also giving it a pleasant and peaceful feel. However, this is contrasted with the ‘bombs [falling]’ outside, again contrasting the tranquillity of the keeper’s world with the lion to the chaos and danger of the separate world outside. The poet also uses hot and cold imagery to portray this difference. The warmth of the lion is juxtaposed with the way the man ‘walk[s] out of sunlight’ in the final stanza after the lion has died. This again symbolizes the man walking out of his comfort into the inhospitality of the city. The lack of description of the city suggests it is unwelcoming and one is unable to ‘belong’. The poet also uses stanzas to shift between the keeper’s inner and outer world alternating between the two with each stanza.
The abandonment of the keeper and the coldness of the outside world sustain a powerful message for the reader regarding the attachment and selflessness we have for loved ones as well as the inevitability of death. The line ‘elderly lions were not immortal… it was bound to happen’ portrays the lack of control we have over death. The pronoun ‘it’ signifies the ambiguity of death; however, the use of the word ‘immortal’ encourages positivity by merely looking at death as the alternative to immortality rather than as something of despair and loneliness. The poet also arouses compassion and sympathy in the reader through his portrayal of the intimate and unique relationship between lion and keeper through the lines ‘who knows no way to let go of love’. The phrase suggests the keeper must deal with much more than the death of a creature; he must learn to release his attachment to the strong bond between himself and his lion.
In this poem, the poet explores the struggles of a lion-keeper dealing with his burden of attachment to his lion once it has passed away. The poet portrays an extremely close and affectionate relationship between the two creatures, one that far surpasses what a lion-keeper’s job entails. The lion-keeper must struggle with losing this bond and hence losing his identity only to be faced by a cold, inhospitable world in contrast to the warmth and comfort within the zoo. The poet sustains these powerful emotions of devotion, loneliness and abandonment to leave the reader with the realization of the inevitability of the death and the power of strong relationships.