You Cannot Do This
Gwendolyn MacEwen
"Poetry has nothing to do with poetry. Poetry is how the air
goes green before thunder. Is the sound you make when you
come, and why you live and how you bleed, and the sound
you make or don't make when you die."
By Hazell F.
You Cannot Do This
Gwendolyn MacEwen
you cannot do this to them, these are my people;
I am not speaking of poetry, I am not speaking of art.
you cannot do this to them, these are my people.
you cannot hack away the horizon in front of their eyes.
the tomb, articulate, will record your doing;
I will record it also, this is not art.
this is a kind of science, a kind of hobby,
a kind of personal vice like coin collecting.
it has something to do with horses
and signet rings and school trophies;
it has something to do with pride of the loins;
it has something to do with good food and music,
and something to do with power, and dancing.
you cannot do this to them, these are my people.
Words you might not know
 Articulate
– Clearly express (an idea or
 Vice – Habit regarded as a weakness in
someone’s character
 Signet rings – A small finger ring
containing a small seal (one’s initials or
the like)
 Loins – The womb or a euphemism for
the reproductive organs.
Gwendolyn MacEwen
 Born
in Toronto 1941
 Died in Toronto 1987
 Dropped out of high school to become a
 Became famous in the world of Canadian
 Mother was in and out of mental hospital
and her father was an alcoholic.
 She also became an alcoholic and it is
thought to be the cause of her death.
What are your own ideas? There are many
different interpretations of this poem none of
them write or wrong. I will focus on two of these
1. As a poem on aristocracy
2. As a war poem
(You might also want to check out this website
which has an interesting view on the poem
03/you-cannot-do-this-by-gwendolynmacewen.html )
Aristocracy Being Overturned
 One
idea is that this poem is about the
upper classes being challenged by the
lower classes and an uprising occurring.
 Voice: The narrator in the poem is maybe
a queen or someone high up in society
and is speaking out to the people who are
committing the atrocity’s against her
 Tone: The tone is challenging and defending
and also kind of shocked ‘how can you do
 Structure: The poem is split into three
stanzas. The first is her standing up and
declaring “you cannot do this”. The second is
explaining how this is not just a poem but a
record of what is happening. The third (which
is longer than the others) is describing their
lives and how they should be. It is in free
verse representing the freedom they once
enjoyed and deserve to keep.
 Imagery: One of the most striking images
in this poem is in the metaphor “you cannot
hack away the horizon in front of their eyes”
the horizon represents the sunrise and a
new day, so symbolizes the taking away of
their future and their hope. The word hack is
also very brutal and suggests violence. The
only other negative image in the poem is the
metaphor of “the tomb, articulate, will record
your doing;” a tomb can’t literally speak but
it will show the generations after what has
happened and will serve as a record so no
one is able to forget and all will know about
the deaths that occurred.
The last stanza contains a lot of imagery
and gives us an insight into what their
culture and lives were like. The “horses”
symbolize grandeur and nobility, also note
wild horses symbolize freedom something
which is trying to be taken from them. The
“signet rings” are a symbol of power and
usually engraved the coat of arms and
was passed down the generations so
represent family history and tradition. The
“pride of the loins” is the pride felt for the
descendents and children which links with
the “school trophies;” representing all their
accomplishments and achievements.
The “good food and music” creates an
image of feasts and celebrations along
with the “dancing” which gives a sense of
enjoyment and happiness.
 Diction: The poem starts with the word
“you” which is in 2nd person and is very
direct and helps to create the challenging
tone in the poem and is almost accusatory.
The word “my” also gives a real sense of
maternal protectiveness like she is trying
to shield them. It portrays the real sense of
grief and hurt she must be feeling.
 Punctuation: The fact that there are no
capital letters at the start of sentences
means that all the letters are in the same
case maybe representing the fact that the
divisions between the social classes is
being removed and the upper classes are
being stripped of their status, power and
money. Interestingly the only capital letter
in the poem is the “I” which shows how the
narrator is still standing up and trying to do
something to stop what is happening.
 Mood: Is defiant, bold and strong.
A Woman’s Experience of War
 Another
idea is that this poem is about the
experience of war from a woman’s
perspective and how it effects not just the
soldiers but the community and women left
 Voice: The narrator in this poem is that of
a woman during war time who is trying to
stop the war and who is forced to stay and
watch as all the young men are taken
away to war.
 Tone: Is challenging and protective but also
in a sense futile and despondent.
 Structure: The first stanza is about her
standing up against the war and speaking out
against it. The second stanza is about how
this is a record of what is happening and
being done just like the tombs of the soldiers
never to return. The third stanza is describing
all the things that they will miss out on. The
poem is in free verse which contrasts the lack
of freedom the soldiers and everyone else
has on what happens. Interesting as aren’t
they meant to be fighting for freedom?
 Imagery: The most powerful, vivid image
in this poem comes from the metaphor
“you cannot hack away the horizon in front
of their eyes” which is a very brutal and
violent image representing the taking away
of their lives and futures and through that
the future hopes of the women and
community left behind. The fact it is in
front of their eyes creates a sense of
sadness as there was no escape it was
right in front of them.
The metaphor “the tomb, articulate, will
record your doing” shows how although
the tombs can’t speak they will tell of the
deaths, what happened and what you
caused so no one is able to forget and
future generations will know. The “school
trophies” represent the childhood they
missed out on and all the triumph’s they
never got to experience. The “pride of the
loins” represent the children and families
they will never have. The “good food and
music” “and dancing” show the parties and
good times they would have enjoyed.
 Diction: The poem starts with a sudden
challenge as “you” is used as if directly to
the reader. The suddenness shows how
war can suddenly come upon you and
take away everything, the only life you
have ever known will suddenly be totally
changed forever. Also the use of “my” is
very inclusive and is non-judgmental she
is standing up for everyone who is affected
by war.
 Repetition: The repeated “you cannot do
this to them, these are my people” is like a
drill and is ironic as it using war/training
techniques to try and stop the war.
 Punctuation: There are no capital letters
after full stops or at the beginning of the
lines which doesn’t follow the normal rules
representing how there are no rules in war.
The only capital letter is “I” showing her
standing up to the authority against war
even if she has to do it all alone.
 Mood: It is defiant and courageous but is
uncertain and ambiguous and the lack of
specificity shows the uncertainty about war
and how know one is sure of what is going
to happen or what the future will hold.
Poems to Compare With:
 Cambodia-James
 Attack-Siegfried Sassoon
 Anthem For A Doomed Youth-Wilfred Owen
 My Dreams Are Of A Field Afar-A.E Houseman
 For Heidi With Blue Hair-Fleur Adcock
Hopefully this has helped your
understanding of the poem You Cannot Do
This and given you some ideas and
different approaches you can work off.

You Cannot Do This Gwendolyn MacEwen