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Saturday, April 23, 2022

Enterprise by Nissim Ezekiel - Critical Appreciation

Nissim Ezekiel’s poem “Enterprise” is an allegorical and symbolic poem which deals with a pilgrimage. It is very difficult to say what kind of pilgrimage it is. It can be deemed as a pilgrimage of life, poetry, search for some hidden truths. The poem is allegorical in nature and it was published in the collection of poems named “The Unfinished Man” in 1960. 

Nissim Ezekiel has been considered as one of the renowned poets in Indo-Anglian poetry. Ezekiel in his poetry has constantly tried to reconcile and harmonize his multifaceted experiences. His poems are always marked with self-exploration which leads him to nowhere, except where he wished to reach. After a very exhausting quest, he finds that: Home is where we have to gather grace.”

Enterprise by Nissim Ezekiel- Critical Appreciation
Enterprise by Nissim Ezekiel- Critical Appreciation


Ezekiel's quest for identity finds expression in his famous poem named “Enterprise”. It is an allegory of the human condition in the world full of suffering and hardships. In this world, man has to go through many ordeals and suffer many failures and frustrations. An allegory is a way of presenting abstract moral and religious truth in an easy and simple manner. So, Nissim Ezekiel’s poem “Enterprise’ is a piece of literary composition with a hidden moral message by the poet.



In the poem, “Enterprise” a group of people undertake a journey. They are inspired by noble aspirations, but it all ends in failure, disappointment and frustration. A number of people including the poet resolved to go on a pilgrimage. They are all inhabitants of a city, but they went to visit some remote and distant primitive place. They start their journey with confidence, hope and faith. They also have courage and determination with their minds full of noble ideas.

“It started as a pilgrimage,
Exalting minds and making all.
The burdens light, the second stage,
Explored but did not test the call.
The sun beat down to match our rage.” 

They are out to make some heroic effort and to achieve something noble. In the beginning, their minds are exalted and they were free from any fear. The primary stage of their journey can be compared to Edenic innocence and purity. The enterprisers are completely unaware of the hostile forces to oppose their noble mission and cause. Their ‘rage’ or passion behind their enterprise is challenged and equalled by the scorching heat of the sun. S.C. Saha remarks, “The sun implies the tortures and agonies, the initial obstacles and difficulties the enterprisers passed through.” 

The enterprisers are not afraid of any danger, hurdles and difficulties. The first stage of their journey is symbolic of childhood innocence and youthful energy. At this stage of man’s life, he is totally nescient of the predicament. 

In the next stage of their journey, the pilgrims face some dangers and try to overcome hurdles. They continue their outward journey of exploration. But they do not care to find out whether they really wanted to undertake the journey or not. They find that their idealism remains untested but still their passion for the journey is intense and deep. 

It seems that natural forces like the sun is hostile to human efforts. A group of enterprisers face the dangers and difficulties. They continue their pilgrimage with great faith and hope. They note of every detail as they move along. They note down the goods bought and sold by the peasants. They also observe the ways of serpents and goats. 

“We stood it very well, I thought,
Observed and put down copious notes.
On things the peasants sold and bought,
The way of serpents and of goats.
Three cities where a sage had taught.” 

They pass through the three cities where a sage had taught. This description is symbolic of the degeneration of their idealism. The idealism of the pilgrims degenerates into the trivial and the commonplace.  This is the human dilemma. A man cannot remain true to his own self for a long time. 

In the second stanza of the poem, the poet has employed various symbols to convey the varied experiences of the enterprisers. For example, the words ‘the serpent’ represents Satan or evil and ‘goats’ denotes the mundane things or lust. Similarly, the word ‘sage’ symbolizes wisdom. 

In simple words, the different experiences of the enterprisers vividly give us an idea of the material, physical and spiritual aspects of life. In addition to this, the enterprisers take copious notes of what they observe and experience in the course of their journey, the enterprisers like the writers record their observations. 

After some time, they are differences among the enterprisers. They begin to quarrel over petty things. They differ on how to cross ‘a piece of waste land’- a desert patch, that is, the area of special difficulties. They could not decide about the best way of crossing it. The poet employs the words ‘stylish prose’ which clearly indicates that the nature of the enterprise is literary, and prose is not sufficient to meet the goal of the enterprise. Poetry has the power to cope up with difficulties.

“But when the differences arose,
On how to cross a desert patch.
We lost a friend whose stylish prose,
Was quite the best of all our batch.
A shadow falls on us and grows.” 

One of their friends who is proud of his stylish prose style was so angry that he abandoned the company. The shadow of discord fell on their ‘Enterprise’ and it started growing. These lines suggest that human mind is prone to indulge in petty quarrels and trivial differences. 

The words ‘A shadow falls on us and grows’ hint at, in the words of Nissim Ezekiel himself, ‘the shadow of defeat’. Thus, a man carries the seed of his failures and frustration within his own self. Despite of all this, enterprisers continue their journey. But now they are divided into groups, each group attacking the other group. So, they forget their noble ideals which motivated them to undertake the great ‘Enterprise’. In this way, they lose their path leading to their destination. 

“Another phase was reached when we,
Were twice attacked, and lost our way.
A section claimed its liberty,
To leave the group. I tried to pray.
Our leader said he smelt the sea.” 

Some of them decide to leave the group. Frustration and difficulties make them desperate. Some of them try to pray and seek the blessing of God. Their leader says that they have reached a dead end because he ‘smell the sea’. He feels that their pilgrimage must end. In the fourth stanza, the poet talks of ‘attack’ which refers to the criticism on Indian Poets writing in English during the 1950s. Owing to the criticism, the writers lose their way and they forget the noble sentiments which inspired them. 

As the pilgrims continue their pilgrimage, they notice nothing remarkable. They lose their idealism and their heroic aspiration. Now they have become a struggling and defeated crowd. They no longer remained devoted idealists.  

“We noticed nothing as we went,
A straggling crowd of little hope.
Ignoring what the thunder meant,
Deprived of common needs like soap.
Some were broken, some merely bent.”

They are completely defeated, both spiritually, physically and mentally. The enterprisers are greatly disillusioned and dejected when they find nothing significant and great during their journey. 

The enterprisers have lost all the significance of their efforts and quest. Such is the ultimate end of all human enterprise, this is the essential truth of human life. Absorbed in their petty quarrels, exhausted and tired, they even do not hear the thunder. Even if they hear the thunder, they ignore its significance. The thunder is symbolic of the divine promise of spiritual regeneration. In T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” the thunder speaks of “Datta, dayadhvam, damyata” which mean ‘give, sympathize, control’, but like the wastelanders the enterprisers ignore the message of the thunder. 

Finally, when they reached the destination, they hardly knew why they were there.  They found the whole journey meaningless. They also felt that their deeds were neither great nor rare and extraordinary. It seems that the enterprisers have forgotten the very aim and objective of their enterprise. The poet says: 

“When, finally, we reached the place,

We hardly knew why we were there.

The trip had darkened every face,

Our deeds were neither great nor rare.

Home is where we have to gather grace.” 

S.C. Saha aptly remarks, “The ultimate confession of the ordinariness of the achievement comes as a clinching, astringent irony.” Since the enterprise has ended on a note of loss of energy, will and enthusiasm, there is something wrong with the starting-point of their journey. The enterprisers seem to have ignored the significance of ‘the inner centre’: ‘Home’ to the poet, before the outset their journey.  

By ignoring the ‘inner centre’, they have achieved nothing but mental torture, pain and disillusionment. In brief, ‘grace,’ that is spiritual redemption, can be attained at home. The outward journey is not so significant as the inward journey. C.D. Narasimahah rightly comments, “The last stanza sums up the futility of much human eneterprise.” 

It is important to note that the poem “Enterprise’ is tinged with some dark colours of despair and failure which result from sense of alienation. In “Enterprise” Nissim Ezekiel has expressed the spirit of utter despair which affects the enterprisers. They have noble aspirations but soon they face harsh realities, differences, defections. When the enterprisers reach the goal, they feel exhausted and spiritless. The poem ends on a note of failure. 

In “Enterprise” Nissim Ezekiel has artistically pointed out the fact that even the most momentous happenings turn out to be trivial, insignificant and meaningless. In the enterprisers realize that “Home is where we have to gather grace” that is home is the reality principle or the inner psyche which cannot be escaped. 

As a modern poet, Nissim Ezekiel uses irony to deflate every thought, action, and passion. S.C. Harrex remarks, “Poetry to Ezekiel is the power to express precisely the small-scale in the context of sceptically awaited miracles.” The enterprise ends in mental fatigue, and the enterprisers feel deceived. The poet puts a question mark on the wisdom of starting the journey itself in ironic manner. 


Like T.S. Eliot, Ezekiel has employed the technique of juxtaposing the opposites. In “Enterprise,” ‘the rage’ of the initial phase of the enterprise is posited against the ‘grace’ of ‘Home’.  Similar technique can be seen in his other poem like “Night of the Scorpion” also. 

Nissim Ezekiel’s poem “Enterprise” ends on a philosophical note which is one of the characteristics of his poetry. The poet seems to suggest that man’s efforts to evade hardships and his wish to escape the realities of life are futile. We must accept the limitations of human lot and do our best within those limits. 

In short, Ezekiel’s poem ‘Enterprise” is an allegory of human condition. Every enterprise begins with great hope and enthusiasm. In the enterprise the goal remains alluring to the enterprisers but once the goal is attained, it loses its beauty and glamour. As a result, the enterpriser wonders at the futility of his enterprise. The ordinariness and short-lived joy of every momentous event is a reality which man must accept.  

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