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A Century Later: Worlds and Lives Analysis

A Century Later was written by Imtiaz Dharker, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Glasgow. Her life in England, Wales and India has contributed to the diverse experiences and heritage reflected in her poetry.

This poem is inspired by Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban as she was on her way to school in 2012. Malala was seen as a threat by the Taliban because she had been protesting for the educational rights of girls since 2008. Despite the assassination attempt, she survived and has become a symbol of hope in the fight for all girls to have education available to them.

A Century Later was published in 2014, marking one hundred years since the start of World War I. The first line of the poem echoes the opening line of Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” written during World War I, which begins with:

“What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?”

Poem Summary

The poem depicts a fifteen-year-old girl, shot on her way to school, who miraculously survives a bullet to the head. Despite her injury, she continues to find beauty in the world, live normally, and express herself through her clothing. The speaker highlights how violence has failed to suppress the girl’s spirit and how her resilience has inspired other girls to advocate for their freedom and rights.

The poem’s key message:

The poem on how war and violence continue to cause harm in the world a century after the start of World War I. However, it emphasises that such acts of aggression are no match for the spirit of people who fight tirelessly for freedom and equality.

Language

Language featureExamples and the effect of this
War imageryIn the opening two lines, Dharker uses war imagery to depict Malala’s fight for an education:

“The school-bell is a call to battle,
every step to class, a step into the firing-line”

This illustrates the danger Malala faced in pursuing her education, being in the “firing-line” of her enemies, the Taliban. The concept of attending school as a “call to battle” is shocking, especially to readers in countries where education is a universal right.

The poem concludes with similar war imagery, envisioning “schoolgirls standing up/ to take their places on the front line”. This portrays the courage of young people who risk their safety for their right to education.

Dharker emphasises that the battle for educational rights for girls continues in many parts of the world and is a crucial fight for freedom.
PersonificationThe speaker personifies the bullet that struck Malala, imagining the girl addressing it:

“Bullet, she says, you are stupid.
You have failed. You cannot kill a book
or the buzzing in it.”

By calling the bullet “stupid”, the speaker asserts that violence cannot suppress the pursuit of education. The poem suggests that the power of knowledge and ideas will always triumph over violent oppression.
List of threeDharker uses a list of three to illustrate how Malala has gained her “right to be ordinary”. She can now “wear bangles to a wedding, paint her fingernails,/ go to school”. These activities, banned by the Taliban, symbolise the everyday freedoms and educational rights Malala fought for.

This list highlights the significance of her victory in gaining the liberty to make personal choices and pursue education.

Structure

  • The first three stanzas of the poem depict the events surrounding the girl’s survival of the assassination attempt.
  • The final three stanzas transition to illustrating the freedom the girl now enjoys and the positive impact she has had on other girls.

Form

  • The poem is written in free verse, with no regular rhythm or rhyme. It uses enjambment across various lines and stanzas, contributing to a free-flowing style. This stylistic choice can be seen as reflective of the freedom that Malala has achieved in defiance of the repressive patriarchal system enforced by the Taliban.
  • The narrative perspective is third person, with the speaker imagining and conveying the girl’s thoughts and experiences.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
Gender OppressionThe poem portrays a deeply patriarchal and misogynistic society where girls are denied the right to education. Going to school is likened to a “call to battle” and a “step into the firing line”, highlighting how violence is used to oppress and prevent girls from accessing education.

The phrase “Surrendered, surrounded” suggests that the girl, shot for her defiance, has been abandoned by those who should protect her. This societal structure severely restricts her freedom. Despite this, her survival represents resistance against the oppressive regime.
WarThe title A Century Later refers to World War I, which began one hundred years before the poem’s publication. Dharker uses war imagery to comment on modern-day conflict and the resultant harm to innocent people. After surviving the assassination attempt, the girl imagines:

“a field humming under the sun,
its lap open and full of poppies”

The use of “poppies” symbolises remembrance of the fallen and a desire for peace, drawing a parallel to the losses and bravery seen in war.
HopeDespite the grim portrayal of violence, the poem concludes with a tone of hope and triumph. The girl’s survival and her “right to be ordinary” signify a victory over the bullet and, by extension, the oppressive forces.

The final lines depict a “swarm” of schoolgirls, inspired by Malala, ready to “take their places on the front line”. This imagery portrays them as a powerful force in the struggle for freedom and equality.

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“The school-bell is a call to battle”The poem’s opening contrasts the innocent image of a “school-bell” with “a call to battle”. This highlights the danger of this girl going to school in the oppressive society she lives in.
“You cannot kill a book or the buzzing in it”Education is presented as being a more powerful force than violence, emphasising that oppression will not win in the long term.
“take their places on the front line”The poem concludes with an image of many girls, inspired by Malala’s courage, uniting to confront and challenge their oppression.

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