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The Empty Glass

What does life owe us? What do we owe one another? American poet and essayist Louise Glück (1943-present) considers these questions in her poem "The Empty Glass" (2001). Glück's poem responds to the human desire—and ultimate futility—to control fate. "The Empty Glass" contains themes of kindness, arrogance, and powerlessness as the speaker tries to find meaning in an unpredictable life. 

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The Empty Glass

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What does life owe us? What do we owe one another? American poet and essayist Louise Glück (1943-present) considers these questions in her poem "The Empty Glass" (2001). Glück's poem responds to the human desire—and ultimate futility—to control fate. "The Empty Glass" contains themes of kindness, arrogance, and powerlessness as the speaker tries to find meaning in an unpredictable life.

"The Empty Glass" at a Glance

Written By

Louise Glück

Publication Date

2001

Form

Free verse

Meter

Inconsistent

Rhyme Scheme

Inconsistent

Poetic Devices

Allusion

Metaphor

Simile

Rhetorical Question

Frequently noted imagery

Umbrellas opened indoors

A pair of shoes by mistake on the kitchen table

A queen, a saint

Whirling in the dark universe

Ladders, shoes, and salt

The sea invisible beyond the serene harbor

Tone

Resigned and contemplative

Key themes

The futility of trying to control fate

The importance of kindness

Meaning

Trying to control fate is futile, but being kind to one another makes the otherwise indifferent world a better place.

"The Empty Glass" Poem

Below is the poem "The Empty Glass" in its entirety. It was originally published in Glück's collection The Seven Ages (2001).

I asked for much; I received much.
I asked for much; I received little, I received
next to nothing.
And between? A few umbrellas opened indoors.
A pair of shoes by mistake on the kitchen table.
O wrong, wrong—it was my nature. I was
hard-hearted, remote. I was
selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.
But I was always that person, even in early childhood.
Small, dark-haired, dreaded by the other children.
I never changed. Inside the glass, the abstract
tide of fortune turned
from high to low overnight.
Was it the sea? Responding, maybe,
to celestial force? To be safe,
I prayed. I tried to be a better person.
Soon it seemed to me that what began as terror
and matured into moral narcissism
might have become in fact
actual human growth. Maybe
this is what my friends meant, taking my hand,
telling me they understood
the abuse, the incredible shit I accepted,
implying (so I once thought) I was a little sick
to give so much for so little.
Whereas they meant I was good (clasping my hand intensely)—
a good friend and person, not a creature of pathos.
I was not pathetic! I was writ large,
like a queen or a saint.
Well, it all makes for interesting conjecture.
And it occurs to me that what is crucial is to believe
in effort, to believe some good will come of simply trying,
a good completely untainted by the corrupt initiating impulse
to persuade or seduce—
What are we without this?
Whirling in the dark universe,
alone, afraid, unable to influence fate—
What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character.
What do we have to appease the great forces?
And I think in the end this was the question
that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach,
the Greek ships at the ready, the sea
invisible beyond the serene harbor, the future
lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking
it could be controlled. He should have said
I have nothing, I am at your mercy."

"The Empty Glass" Poem Summary

The speaker considers the ambivalent, unpredictable state of her life. Regardless of what she does or expects from the universe, fate seems to respond erratically. She states that she has always been aloof and cynical, even as a child. When her life started to go badly, the speaker prayed out of fear. Almost by accident, she began to grow as a person. Instead of getting upset or angry when things didn't go her way, she began to accept that she couldn't change fate. Her friends saw this growth as a willingness to let life do whatever it wanted to her. They felt bad for her, but the speaker says that she actually became a more prominent version of herself, "like a queen or saint" (29).

She says the most important thing is to keep trying to be good and hoping that good things will come, instead of expecting or demanding them to. When it comes down to it, humanity is powerless against fate as individuals and as a collective. Humans and their desires are insignificant to the forces of the universe. Agamemnon, the great Greek king, was a fool to believe that he could control fate with his armies and soldiers. Instead, things would have been much different if he had submitted to fate's power and didn't try to fight it.

The Empty Glass, Painting of a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Agamemnon was a Greek king who was punished for trying to control fate.

"The Empty Glass" Poem Analysis

The most prominent literary devices in "The Empty Glass" are allusion, metaphor, simile, and rhetorical question.

Allusion

The speaker uses allusion primarily to present and critique people who think they can control fate and the future. The first example occurs in the second stanza:

And between? A few umbrellas opened indoors.
A pair of shoes by mistake on the kitchen table." (4-5)

This allusion refers to the superstition that opening an umbrella indoors or putting shoes on the table will bring bad luck. The speaker argues that people are fools to think they can escape fate by avoiding these superstitions. When she considers humanity's powerless relationship with the universe, she says:

What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character." (38-41)

In these allusions, the speaker refers to superstitions thought to undo bad luck and bring good fortune. If a person accidentally walks under a ladder, all they need to do is walk under it again backward to escape their bad luck. According to tradition, throwing shoes after a person who is going on a journey is thought to bring good luck, and throwing salt over one's left shoulder gets rid of bad luck. The speaker calls these attempts to control life "sad tricks" (39) because they only give humans the illusion of control.

Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic.

The Empty Glass, Salt in a wooden spoon, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The speaker implies that superstitions like throwing salt give humans the illusion of control but have no effect on reality.

The final allusion occurs in the last stanza when the speaker references the Greek king Agamemnon's foolish belief that he could control fate:

And I think in the end this was the question

that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach,

the Greek ships at the ready..." (43-45)

Agamemnon was notoriously arrogant about the Trojan War. After he insulted the goddess Athena, she cursed Agamemnon and prevented his forces from sailing. To get his army to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease Athena. He also famously quarreled with the warrior Achilles and was slain by his own wife after the war, both because of his hubris.

In Greek mythology, Agamemnon was a Greek king and the brother of Menelaus, the king of Sparta. When Menelaus's wife fell in love with a Trojan prince and was taken to Troy, Menelaus asked the Greek kings to help him wage war on Troy in retaliation.

Agamemnon led the Greek forces and besieged the city of Troy for ten years. While he was away fighting in the Trojan War, his wife began an affair. Upon his return home, his wife and her lover murdered Agamemnon to get revenge for Iphigenia's death.

Metaphor

The speaker uses metaphor to present the ambivalent state of her life. She compares the turbulence of fortune to a tide coming in waves. She says,

...Inside the glass, the abstract
tide of fortune turned
from high to low overnight." (11-13)

Like the waves of the ocean, fortune rises and falls. It is not a steady, consistent force but one controlled by outside influences. This metaphor also shows that things in nature—including people—are dominated by external forces.

Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as to magnify emotional meaning and suggest a connection between the two things.

Simile

Similes in "The Empty Glass" shows the power of giving in to fate. The speaker says that once she stopped trying to control the future, she became a more dignified version of herself:

I was not pathetic! I was writ large,
like a queen or a saint." (28-29)

Essentially, the speaker is saying that there is power in letting go. Her friends thought she was giving up; instead, she was living her fullest life. Instead of trying to control everything and getting upset when she couldn't, the speaker is now accepting everything fate has in store.

Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like, as, or than.

The phrase "writ large" means clear and obvious or exaggerated.

Rhetorical Question

Towards the poem's end, the speaker begins to consider the role humans play in the universe. Contrary to popular belief, the speaker contends that humans are not as important and powerful as we convince ourselves. The rhetorical questions consider humanity's actual place in the universe instead of the one we have designated for ourselves. The speaker wonders, "What are we without this?" (35), "What do we have really?" (38), and "What do we have to appease the great forces?" (42). By the end of the poem, the speaker still doesn't have any answer to these questions, revealing that maybe the answer is nothing at all.

Rhetorical Question: a question asked to create a dramatic effect or emphasize a point rather than to get an actual answer.

Can you think of any answers to the questions the speaker poses?

"The Empty Glass:" Themes

The main themes in the poem are the futility of trying to control fate and the importance of kindness.

The Futility of Trying to Control Fate

The primary theme of "The Empty Glass" is the futility of trying to control fate. Throughout history, humankind has attempted to assert control over all aspects of life. Humans control the natural world through farming and keeping livestock, the rest of the world through technology and innovation, and—to some degree—even life and death through medicine and healthcare.

But for all the things humans can control tangibly, there are a plethora of intangible things they cannot control: time, mortality, fate, etc. Although humans do everything they can to control the future, fate cannot be controlled. The speaker says,

What are we without this?
Whirling in the dark universe,
alone, afraid, unable to influence fate—" (35-37).

Humankind's power is extremely limited. There is no perfect answer for the meaning of life or what humans contribute to the vast infinity of space and time. All we know is that we don't know very much at all.

The Importance of Kindness

In response to the futility of the human condition, the speaker argues that kindness is the best course of action:

...To be safe,

I prayed. I tried to be a better person.
Soon it seemed to me that what began as terror
and matured into moral narcissism
might have become in fact
actual human growth." (15-20)

In a world where fate is indifferent to pain and suffering, the only thing that really matters is how humans treat one another. When the world is cruel, it is kindness that makes all the difference. The speaker says,

And it occurs to me that what is crucial is to believe
in effort, to believe some good will come of simply trying,
a good completely untainted by the corrupt initiating impulse
to persuade or seduce—" (31-34)

The point of living isn't to be good so that you will be rewarded. Instead, it's to be good because kindness makes the world better.

The Empty Glass, "Be Kind" written in chalk, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Humans can't control fate, but they can control how they treat one another.

"The Empty Glass:" Meaning

The title "The Empty Glass" refers to the idiom "Is the glass half empty or half full?" If a person sees a half-filled glass as half empty, they are a pessimist, and if they see it as half full, they are an optimist. The empty glass of the title refers to the way the speaker once viewed her place in the world. Pessimistic, closed-off, and self-centered, the speaker had a poor relationship with other people. She also believed that she could influence fate through her actions. The speaker has since realized her understanding of fate and humanity was wrong and says,

O wrong, wrong—it was my nature. I was
hard-hearted, remote. I was
selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.
But I was always that person, even in early childhood.
Small, dark-haired, dreaded by the other children.
I never changed. Inside the glass, the abstract
tide of fortune turned
from high to low overnight." (6-13)

When her life changed and she lost everything, the speaker realized her flawed belief system. She learned that fate is unsympathetic and unmoved. So the only thing that gives any meaning to life at all is how we treat one another. Being kind won't change the future, but it does change how people experience life in this indifferent world. The meaning of "The Empty Glass" is that trying to control fate is futile, but being kind to one another makes the world a better place.

The Empty Glass - Key takeaways

  • "The Empty Glass" was written by Louise Glück.
  • It was published in her 2001 collection The Seven Ages.
  • The title "The Empty Glass" refers to the phrase "Is the glass half empty or half full?"
  • The main themes are the futility of trying to control fate and the importance of kindness.
  • The meaning of "The Empty Glass" is that trying to control fate is futile, but being kind to one another makes the world a better place.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Empty Glass

"The Empty Glass" is about the futility of attempting to control fate. 

The most prominent literary devices are allusion, metaphor, simile, and rhetorical question. 

It is a free verse poem. 

The tone is resigned and contemplative. 

The message is that human beings can't control fate, but we can make ourselves better by being kind. 

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