Analysis of the Poem the Way of the Adjutant Stork by Patrick Fernando


Patrick Fernando (1931 -1983) - a Sri Lankan poet who won international recognition – is considered as one of the accomplished poets in Sri Lanka writing in English. Most of his subject of writing were people, things and places the poet had been in close contact with. read more…



Adjutant stork is a large bird of the crane family, it is big, ugly and carnivorous. In another sense, adjutant is an executive level position of military forces. That hints about the characterization of the aunt. The title of the poem is a metaphor and a symbol to the protagonist in the poem, a powerful female introduced as the aunt in a macro family.

The poem is like an ode or a mock epic written by Neo-classical poets like Dryden and Pope. Rhyming scheme is ABABCDCEFG - regular at the beginning and irregular at the end. (regular-irregular, a puzzling portrayal may be to depict the power and exertion of power. Narration is first person, possibly a boy child’s point of view.  

The thematic concern of the poem is about power, the corrupted nature of ultimate power and the suffering of the powerless and finally, the universal truth – every powerful falls. Like the great Roman empire fell, the aunt dies with her immense power.


Stanza Analysis


The Way of the Adjutant Stork by Patrick Fernando

(Leptoptilos Dubius)

Saturday, Mary’s day, mess at daybreak

I, peevish boy, must tell my mother to bring

home fresh graces culled from heaven’s hedge, then wake

a dreaming father to catch the seven-ten.

The house settles by nine and the grand aunt

alights: wings curve to wrap the gaunt high frame

in shape and gesture proudly eminent.

I watch a powerful adjutant at work

Mandibles stab, rattle and stab; my mother,

uttering unmeant amens or struck dumb

at each don’t you agree aimed straight at her,

drowns in the drag of yellow eyes

while some relative, friend or acquaintance

is picked and into the goitered gizzard

gulped with neither relish nor reluctance:

selfless execution of the ruin

she thought rescue of all our families.

Her diamond will we took as heaven’s will.


metaphor: bring home fresh graces culled from heaven’s hedge – doing the morning prayer (shows that as an impossible or a hard activity to do.)

onomatopoeia: stab, rattle, stab (shows her sharp and unpleasant speech)

metaphor: Mandible stab, rattle, stab (power of her speech)

imagery: dreaming father, yellow eyes, picked into the goitered gizzard (like a small person is put into a sack)

alliteration: goitered gizzard gulped (the sound create a suffocating sense)

inversion: her diamond will we took as heaven’s will (the speaker seems critical about that)


The speaker is introduced as ‘peevish’, which tells us about his character - against a mighty character, the aunt. The aunt is introduced as a powerful character: from her waking up- ‘grand aunt alights’, her built, speech and gestures she surpasses others in the family. (though she gets up late.) Mother seems powerless against her giant figure; her behaviour ‘unmeant amens’ ‘struck dumb’ are example for this. Further, the relatives are too criticized and mentally tortured - ‘selfless execution of the ruin’. From the point of view of the boy (his tone of voice a bit humorous; maybe he is a small boy), the reader can sense that the aunt is a bitter character to everybody. Despite all, everybody accepted her power- ‘her diamond will we took as heaven’s will’.


Marriages forced or loosed and every niece

too poor and plain coaxed into convent.

I remember the finest girl of all;

she loved a man the adjutant forbade,

took him, was banished forever; her fall

etched into the family scriptures

was often read to guide the uncertain young.

Recall also the chapter on alcohol:

a rare uncle, the only musician

our clan produced, by heaven’s will and favour

fixed up in the railway as booking clerk.

She had his violins sold, he changed to drink,

reeled with laughter and tears, flung out of work,

and sang to death in a public hospital.


The second stanza shows her reckless power over the family. She almost could do anything. She moves the lives the family members at will like the pieces on a chess board. According to the speaker, no move had made anyone’s life better but ruined. Her poisoned dictatorship is visible in her actions, ruining the ‘good’ people’s lives shows her jealousy against happiness of others. The stanza shows how many lives had been destroyed by the decision taken by the aunt. The aunt’s behaviour is a lesson about too much power: too much power is too much corrupted.  


Although wedded early and long she saved

most of her virginity. The foiled spouse

philandered, she knew it all, but braved

the trial with prayer to Mary, married but pure.

Dubius is distinguished in her genus-

eats the dead too: ghosts mean nothing to her.

No great flyer, she lived quite close to us

in the old wild almond tree where she was born.

A stroke erased her from the scene. My father

taking prompt charge brought off the funeral

with a practical flair we had never

suspected and never witnessed again.


The reason for her bitterness is a reflection of most toxic characters in the society. She herself had an unsuccessful marriage. The satirical comment ‘she saved most of her virginity’ and husband starting wooing at other women is a profile of her bitter reality of her unsuccessful domestic life. ‘Dubius is distinguished in her genus’ shows her character itself – a questionable one, the narrator questions about the viability of her decisions. Because of a childish narration we hear his genuine voice, the adult is afraid of airing their thoughts which reflects the nature of a society governed by a dictator. ‘No great flyer, she lived quite close to us’ shows that she lives close to the family, so her iron grip is very firm over others; everybody is under her surveillance all the time. Her death was sudden and was given a ceremonial funeral they could never forget (boy says so). The submissive father suddenly becoming active shows the inner happiness of being released from a grip of a dictator.


But unanimously we miss the great aunt

departed forever to hover among

pterodactyls and archangels and haunt

in legend her unrebellious domain.

Each year on the day she flopped my mother

had a memorial mass sung for her soul’s

perpetual repose and this my father

too attended, mostly to please his wife,

and returned humming the dies irae.

At breakfast he observed, merits of the mass

are infinite; Father Bruno used to say

they encompass even hell, meaning of course,

not to question eternal damnation

but only to drive home a point in class.

At this my mother, dismantling a frown,

Exhorted me to attend daily mass. 


coin words – we find some coined words made up by Fernando like unrebellious, goitered which serve as elements of humour to the poem.

metaphor: the day she flopped – death of the aunt


Everybody seems relived after the sudden death of the aunt. They believe she has gone to the hell not the heaven: ‘they encompass even hell, meaning of course, /not to question eternal damnation.’ Though the mother had been under the shoe of the great aunt, she tries to make sure the aunt to have eternal peace which shows the result of living submissively for a long-term, cannot go against even after the departure of the powerful, effect remains.  The contrast ‘pterodactyls and archangels’ shows the range of power she had possessed – from pre-historic dinosaurs to the universe, heaven. The term ‘unrebellious domain’ shows her tyrannical power.

The stanza shows that the life goes on with or without anybody. The aunt thought that she is to safeguard the family. Though she wanted to keep the family under her great wings forever, it was not possible because she could not understand the fact that everything in this world is uncontrollable and transitory.

This is another work of female domination in Sri Lankan field of literature. Which is a very common subject matter at the period of time. In many post-colonial literature, we see powerful female. However, most of the time the poetic justice is laid upon them. 

You may read Analysis of The Magi by Patrick Fernando here.

Have you seen similar toxic people in your lives, please leave a comment regarding your ideas about the poem. Share the post if you find the analysis is useful to others.  






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