The Negative Tone of Robert Graves’ “Counting the Beats”
The most notable quality of Graves’ “Counting the Beats” remains the tone of the poem, which conveys a distinct simplicity that both colors the poem’s “feel” as well as paints a pessimistic image of the events. In an ambiguous setting, the poem depicts a nameless man and woman engaged in dialogue, complemented by a narrator’s ironic knowledge of events beyond the limits of the couple. The narrative voice establishes a tone of hopelessness in which the established mood of the poem becomes more important than the limited events of the unidentified man and woman. Their actions are simple at best: while the dialogue between the pair suggests a love affair, it does not progress beyond three short statements, their conversation, along with the narrator’s observations that indicate an inevitable unhappy future.
With the opening of the poem, the man asks a question that seems harmless enough: “And if no more than only you and I / What care you or I?” By his statement, he seems content or resolved that only the two of them remain important-but with regard to what: their place in the universe? their private love? or their fear of the future? The beginning of the line colors the tone of his question, apparently confirming his suspicion that their love has limitations and exists in isolation, rather than his asking something for which he seeks an answer. Besides isolation, his statement also suggests loneliness and negativity. Suspicions that one should interpret his question in this way become confirmed by the last two lines, “The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats.” That their hearts beat slowly appears to indicate that passion has been dulled, or perhaps that it goes absent or spent. Reflection dominates as opposed to action or involvement between the pair, which appears as negative: “bleeding to death” tells the audience of a slow demise. The two protagonists allow life, and with it love, to escape from them in slow, measured time, as indicated by the slow beats of their hearts.
The ambiguity of the scene, where the place, circumstances, and identities of the couple are unknown, seems secondary to other aspects, most notably the turns of thoughts encountered in the poem and the unfavorable direction they lead the reader: “And if no more” continues an ambiguous thought, but it leads nowhere. By phrasing the reflection in the negative—“if no more”—a reader reflects upon limitation, the affirmation