“Daniel at Breakfast” by Phyllis McGinley


“Daniel at Breakfast” is a poem that is divided into five stanzas. In the first four stanzas we can find an a-b-c-b rhyme scheme. In the last stanza, which contains six lines instead of four, there is an a-b-a-b-c-c rhyme system. The scene of this poem takes place one ordinary morning as Daniel is eating his breakfast. During his breakfast, he reads the newspaper. He reads about “famine, storm, pestilence, decay.” These are some of the major disasters in the world that day. By using many examples of such major disasters, Phyllis McGinley achieves a repetitious effect. At the same time, she describes Daniel’s movements while having breakfast. He “sips his orange juice” and reaches for the butter.


The author of this piece of poetry contrasts the major problems in the world, which Daniel reads about in the paper, with the trivialities that Daniel is facing. This is well expressed in the extract taken from the text on the question paper. It shows that it does not seem that Daniel cares very much about the global problems, but when “the coffee’s weak again”, he becomes upset. I believe Phyllis McGinley is trying to tell us that quite many people are just like Daniel. We may be very self-centred and think of ourselves first. We register all the catastrophic happenings around the world, but our own small problems are still the most important ones.


In my opinion, it seems like Daniel is very used to his morning routines. His paper is upheld by the electric toaster, he rebukes the weather and kisses his wife at the door. He is, as we can see, married and has a job. This may indicate that he is not a very young man. If this is correct, he has probably been reading about the world disasters for many years. It is natural to take less note of newspaper articles if you have read more or less similar ones for years. Using this argumentation we might say that Daniel is not a particularly insensitive or uncaring person. Sometimes it can even be an asset not to care too much about all the misery that the media describe. It is, of course, unfortunate if articles in the newspaper ruin the day for you. I suppose many of us recognize the scene described in “Daniel at Breakfast”. We read newspapers, listen to the radio and watch TV, but very often we do not pay proper attention to all the bad news. In many situations it is natural for us to think of the immediate problems we are facing, first. It is, however, important not to generalize. Luckily, there are people in this world who try hard to help people in need instead of just reading about it in the papers and leaving it at that.


Some will say that Daniel is a particularly insensitive and uncaring person. From an ethical or humane point of view, this might be a suitable description of Daniel. It is rather peculiar that Daniel is more concerned about the trivialities without any great importance, than he is about the greater problems in the world, those who really suffer from “famine, storm, pestilence, decay.” Perhaps Daniel ought to think more of all the tragedies we face in the world today? He should show more sympathy or try to contribute to help. People in the third world and people in areas devastated by war, are in great need of assistance. Compared to the problems these people are facing every day, Daniel’s problems are relatively insignificant: Weak coffee, bad weather, a dental visit and the grocery bill are all examples of problems he can face. I do, however, feel that Daniel is only an image of human beings of today. We identify ourselves with Daniel when we for instance read the news at breakfast. Most of us do not care too much, do we?


I think Phyllis McGinley wrote this poem to express that we often do not care about all the gloomy news the media present to us. Reading the first stanza, I got the feeling that Daniel “studies” world disaster just as easily as he sips his orange juice. In the next stanza, on the other hand, the words in the newspaper dismay him, and he is gloomy when he reaches for the butter. In my opinion, stanza number three gives the best picture of how Daniel feels. That is the stanza with the contrast between the major disasters and Daniel’s behaviour when he finds out that “the coffee’s week again.” The truth might be that Daniel is fed up with all the bad news he is reading. Do the media emphazise this kind of news too much?


From my point of view Daniel is not a particularly insensitive or uncaring person, because I, as mentioned, believe most of us are quite like him when it comes to having compassion for those who suffer from war, catastrophes, famine and so on.


Whether I am right or wrong, I leave to others to decide......


Henrik Magnusson 12 February 1997

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