A Summary and Analysis of Shel Silverstein’s ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’

Literature

‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ is probably the best-known poem by Shel Silverstein. A popular poem for children, it was first published in 1974. The poem describes a hidden other world which lies between the sidewalk and the street: a world which children know how to find, where things are somewhat different from our world.

You can read ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Silverstein’s poem below.

‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’: summary

The poem is divided into three stanzas. We’ll discuss the form of these stanzas below, but let’s summarise what happens in the poem first.

The speaker begins by telling us that there is a place where the sidewalk ends but before the street begins. If we picture a sidewalk or pavement, and the kerb that marks the boundary between this sidewalk and the street or road, then what the speaker is saying is that there is some hidden, magical place that exists between the sidewalk and the street.

We might think of this, perhaps, as a bit like Platform 9¾ from the Harry Potter series: it’s a world that exists separately from the real, mundane world we inhabit.

In this place between sidewalk and street, the speaker goes on, the grass grows white rather than the more usual green. The sun burns a bright red colour, and a bird known as the moon-bird has a rest from flying, cooling off in the breeze or wind which is likened to peppermint: cooling and fresh, in other words.

In the second stanza, Silverstein calls upon his readers to leave behind the world of the dark street and the sidewalk, with the winding and bending nature of the road and the black smoke (conjuring the industrial world of chimneys and coal-burning).

He entreats us to walk beyond the fake flowerbeds with their flowers made of asphalt and slowly, calmly, and thoughtfully follow the white arrows that have been drawn in chalk on the path, leading towards the place where the sidewalk ends.

The third stanza affirms and confirms what the second stanza had begun to say: that reader and poet should go where the arrows lead, to the place where the sidewalk ends. He then reveals that it is children who have marked the chalk arrows onto the path, to direct others to this special place that lies between the sidewalk and the street: the place ‘where the sidewalk ends’.

‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’: analysis

In this poem, Shel Silverstein describes and conjures a place which is markedly different from anything we know in our own, real world. We might productively analyse ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ alongside the lyrics of The Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, with its tangerine trees and marmalade skies: similarly, a fantastical, almost psychedelic realm which exists only in the imagination, but is all the brighter and more enticing for that very reason.

There is no such bird as a ‘moon-bird’ in our world, although the Spanish artist Joan Miró created an interesting sculpture of that name in 1946, which may have been in Shel Silverstein’s mind when he wrote the poem. Appropriately enough, Miró was an artist known for his Surrealist fantasy art.

Similarly, ‘peppermint wind’ conjures not only the freshness and coolness of the breeze, but it also evokes a wind that we can almost taste, like a mint sweet, and that we can smell, in our mind’s eye (or mind’s nose, anyway). Part of the genius of ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ is Silverstein’s ability to engage our imaginative senses – all of them, not just sight – so that we feel we, too, are losing ourselves in this magical world found ‘where the sidewalk ends’.

But if Silverstein’s poem gestures towards another world beyond our own, one of play and fantasy and imagination, that is all it does: beyond the first stanza, the focus of ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ is on the arrows in our world which direct the pedestrian towards this other realm.

This is an important point because it shows that Silverstein is leaving this realm of the imagination largely up to us as readers to fill in: his first stanza sketches in a few details (the white grass, the crimson sun, the moon-bird), but then leaves the rest up to us. For after all, if he populated his poem with too many details about this imaginary landscape, it would not be a world of our imagination, but his.

And both the title of the poem and those arrows are an act of hinting and encouraging rather than direct description. The point of the poem is to get us to reach the end of the sidewalk and discover this other world for ourselves. The sidewalk, then, represents the grim conformity of the everyday world: a world of school and work governed by the clock and the calendar, by the roads and the sidewalks telling us where to walk, where to drive, and where not to walk and drive.

And if those chalk arrows also direct us somewhere, their gesturing is less a directive than a friendly tip, a wink to the reader that another way, and another world, exist just out of sight. The fact that children know how to reach this limit or threshold, and then to go beyond it into the magical world beyond, strongly suggests that the world Silverstein is hinting at is one of play, imagination, and freedom, which adults tend to lose once sight of once they get too used to sticking to the path, viewing the sidewalk as merely a means of getting from A to B.

‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’: form

The poem comprises three stanzas of six, six, and four lines respectively. The poem rhymes: the first two stanzas rhyme abcccb (where ‘wind’ and ‘begins’ are taken to be rhymes in the first stanza), and the third stanza is essentially a shorter version of the form used in the first two stanzas, retaining only the final four lines and doing without the first two, and so rhyming aaab.

The metre of ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ is a mixture of iambic and anapaestic feet. An iambic foot is a light stress followed by a heavy stress, as in ‘To COOL’, while an anapaest is two light stresses followed by a heavy stress, as in ‘from his FLIGHT’.

Iambic metre is associated with the rhythms of ordinary English speech, so this lends the poem a conversational tone, while the anapaests render the rhythm more sprightly and lively than regular iambic metre would – and this is appropriate given the excitement and joy the poem conveys, concerning the other realm beyond the sidewalk.

Some lines are straightforward iambic metre: the line ‘And there the sun burns crimson bright’, for example, would be scanned as ‘And THERE the SUN burns CRIM-son BRIGHT’.

But others are more complicated: for instance, the line ‘Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black’ would be scanned as ‘Let us LEAVE this PLACE where the SMOKE blows BLACK’: that is, an anapaest, an iamb, another anapaest, and another iamb.

In summary, then, the metre, or ground-plan, of Silverstein’s poem is iambic tetrameter: ‘tetrameter’ because there are four feet in most of the poem’s lines. But there are a number of anapaestic substitutions, where an iamb has been replaced by an anapaest.

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