Elizabeth Burge’s ‘Ispahan Carpet’ is a poem about child labour. It is set in a Persian town and describes a small episode of two people’s interactions- an 8-year-old Persian girl and the speaker, who is a tourist, presumably from a developed country. The poem is written in free verse and paints an image of a dimly-lit house where small girls are weaving carpets, and the tourists are watching. The poem is not written in stanzas and has a very solemn tone. There is a lot of symbolism and imagery in the poem, which adds to the dark theme that it discusses.
The girls are stuck weaving carpets because their small fingers can make more precise and minor knots, increasing the carpet's value. But this isn’t what the girls want. The speaker sees the girls as unsupported and thus unable to follow their dreams and passions: “…their unsupported bird bones…”(Burge, 8). The author compares the little girls to birds who aren’t able to fly because they don’t have adequate support from their parents. They are being forced to work the family’s traditional job and spend their childhood weaving carpets instead of expanding their horizons by going to school and learning things that might let them branch out from a life of making carpets. This is further reinforced by this line: “…on the greenstick shoulder…”(21). ‘Greenstick’ implies that the girls are like green plants, weak and not fully grown-up. Their bodies are frail and fragile rather than healthy and strong. The cause of this is malnourishment, meaning that the family can’t afford enough for everyone to eat. This financial situation is what led to the girls getting trapped in these circumstances. They work on carpets so that their family can make more money. This reflects the condition of a lot of poor families and tells us why so many children are forced into labour at a very young age.
This sad truth is further incorporated into the poem through the use of diction and imagery. “…rough timber gallows…”(1), “…dark-eyed Persian family…”(2), “…blackened pots and jars…”(3), “…shadowing the makers…”(6), “…speaking darkness…”(22). The poet introduces motifs of darkness and also death, both physically and emotionally. The repetitive introduction of dark things further intensifies the serious topic being addressed. It also adds to the tone of the poem and paints a picture of a very dusky room in a house. There are also some examples of anaphora which adds to the dark theme and emphasises the ideas in it: “One hundred knots, One hundred heartbeats, One hundred hours”(15–17). The poet uses it to create a rhythmic phrase in the poem, which is otherwise devoid of rhythm and rhyme. It draws the reader’s attention to where the author wants, highlighting the parts where it happens. In this case, it brings to the foreground the amount of work put in by the child for such a small part of the carpet and how the process is extremely tiring for the girl. The use of anaphora here clarifies the poet’s thoughts and highlights them. The author uses a lot of words with double meanings, which can be interpreted in many ways: “… space a foot will crush down…”(17). Amidst the anaphora, the author puts in symbolism. The foot-crushing space can represent the physical area on the carpet. However, it also signifies the girl’s dreams and ambitions being crushed, leaving her with no future. It’s ironic how the girl’s own precise work symbolises her future being crushed.
In conclusion, Ispahan Carpet is a beautiful poem that brings to light a lot of social issues in poor families. The girl is a symbol of children losing their future because of circumstances like hers. I quite liked this poem’s tone and how it discussed such an important yet often overlooked matter. I also really enjoyed the imagery and how the author portrayed the room. The speaker seems like they got affected and deeply moved by the scene they saw in front of them. It seemed like they wanted to help the girl, who wanted to be free from the situation she was in: “Her large eyes look back at me with speaking darkness.”(22), implying her resentment for her current state and her current state profound desire to be free.