Complete Analysis of the poem The Washerwoman's Prayer by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

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In "The Washerwoman's Prayer" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, a poignant tribute unfolds as the poet addresses his mother-in-law, capturing the weariness etched upon her hands and face from years of toiling to cleanse the opulence-soiled garments of her master. The verses paint vivid scenes of her silent drudgery under frost-freckled mornings and sun-scorched afternoons, punctuated by a moment of collapse where her plea to the heavens unveils a divine revelation. This prayerful journey explores the burden of labor and the solace found in a newfound purpose.



The title, "The Washerwoman's Prayer," encapsulates the essence of the poem by centering on the protagonist, a washerwoman, and her plea to a higher power. It suggests a narrative that delves into the spiritual and emotional dimensions of her life as she engages in the repetitive and often arduous task of washing clothes for her master. The title foreshadows a significant moment in the poem where the washerwoman, in a moment of exhaustion and questioning, receives guidance through prayer, adding a layer of depth to the overall theme of labor, faith, and endurance.


1. Labor and Toil:

   The poem vividly portrays the laborious life of the washerwoman, emphasizing the physical toll of her work through descriptions of her raw, knobbly hands and calloused skin. The repetitive nature of her task is captured in the poet's depiction of her drudging murmurlessly through frost-freckled mornings and sun-scorched afternoons.

2. Social Injustice:

   The washerwoman's toil is connected to the societal disparities of the time, where she cleanses clothes soiled by the luxuries of her master. This highlights the unequal distribution of labor and the exploitation of the working class, echoing themes of social injustice and economic disparity.

3. Spirituality and Prayer:

   The turning point in the poem comes when the washerwoman, overwhelmed by weariness, falls and utters a prayer. This introduces a spiritual dimension to the narrative, where the divine responds with a revelation that imparts a sense of purpose and meaning to her struggles. The theme of faith and seeking solace in prayer becomes prominent.

4. **Sacrifice and Redemption:**

   The divine message instructs the washerwoman to suffer for those who live in gilded sin and toil for those who indulge in excess. This theme of sacrifice and redemption suggests a higher purpose in her labor, transforming her seemingly mundane and burdensome task into a meaningful act with spiritual significance.

5. **Endurance and Resilience:**

   Through the washerwoman's continued, murmurous toil despite the challenges, the poem explores the themes of endurance and resilience. Her ability to carry on with her work, even in the face of physical exhaustion, reflects a quiet strength that adds layers to the narrative.

6. **Gratitude and Acceptance:**

   The concluding lines express the washerwoman's newfound gratitude and acceptance of her task, signaling a resolution in her internal struggle. The repetition of "Thank you Lord" suggests a shift in her perspective, embracing her labor with a sense of purpose and understanding.

In summary, the poem weaves together themes of labor, social injustice, spirituality, sacrifice, endurance, and gratitude, creating a rich tapestry that explores the complexities of the washerwoman's life and the transformative power of prayer.

Tone and Mood


The tone of "The Washerwoman's Prayer" is contemplative and empathetic. The poet adopts a reflective tone to convey the hardships and struggles faced by the washerwoman. There's a sense of sympathy towards the protagonist as the poet describes her physical toll and the repetitive nature of her labor. The tone becomes more spiritual and introspective during the prayerful moment, adding a layer of reverence and contemplation.


The mood of the poem evolves from a somber and reflective mood to a moment of spiritual revelation and gratitude. Initially, the mood is melancholic as the poet paints a vivid picture of the washerwoman's challenging life. However, with the introduction of the prayer and the divine response, there's a shift towards a more hopeful and transcendent mood. The concluding lines bring a sense of acceptance and gratitude, altering the mood to one of resolution and quiet contentment.


1. **Hands:**

   The poem vividly describes the washerwoman's hands as "raw, knobbly and calloused." This imagery emphasizes the physical toll of her labor, providing a tangible representation of the hardships she endures.

2. **Face:**

   The comparison of the washerwoman's face to "a bean skin soaked in brine" creates a vivid image of weariness and exhaustion. The simile evokes a sense of fatigue and roughness, reinforcing the challenging nature of her life.

3. **Clothes Soiled by Luxuries:**

   The poet uses the imagery of clothes soiled by the luxuries of the master to depict the stark contrast between the washerwoman's life of labor and the privileged lifestyle of her employer. This imagery highlights the social and economic disparities at play.

4. **Frost-Freckled Mornings and Sun-Scorched Afternoons:**

   These images contribute to the portrayal of the washerwoman's daily routine, capturing the harshness of her working conditions. The frost-freckled mornings and sun-scorched afternoons evoke a sense of the challenging, unforgiving environment in which she toils.

5. **Fall and Fainting:**

   The imagery of the washerwoman falling and fainting adds a dramatic element to the narrative. It creates a visual moment of vulnerability and emphasizes the physical toll that her labor has taken on her.

6. **Foaming Mouth:**

   The poet describes the washerwoman's mouth as a "foaming spout," creating a striking image of distress and desperation during her moment of collapse. This image adds an emotional intensity to the poem.

7. **Divine Revelation:**

   The poem introduces a spiritual dimension with the imagery of the washerwoman receiving guidance during her prayer. This transcendent moment is depicted through words like "Good Lord," creating a visual image of a divine connection and revelation.

8. **Gilded Sin and Bowl of Pink Gin:**

   The imagery of "gilded sin" and "a bowl of pink gin" paints a picture of excess and indulgence, contrasting with the washerwoman's life of labor. These images reinforce the theme of social injustice and economic disparity.

9. **Thanksgiving:**

   The repetition of "Thank you Lord" in the concluding lines creates a powerful image of the washerwoman expressing gratitude and acceptance. This image signifies a shift in her perspective, embracing her task with newfound understanding.

In summary, the poem employs rich and evocative imagery to depict the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of the washerwoman's life, allowing readers to empathize with her struggles and transformations.


1. **Hands:**

   The hands of the washerwoman symbolize her labor and the physical toll it takes on her. They become a powerful symbol of her sacrifice and the hardships she endures in her daily toil.

2. **Bean Skin Soaked in Brine (Face):**

   The imagery of the face being compared to a "bean skin soaked in brine" may symbolize the harshness and bitterness of her life. It becomes a visual representation of the emotional and physical weariness she carries.

3. **Clothes Soiled by Luxuries:**

   The clothes soiled by the luxuries of the master symbolize the societal imbalance and exploitation. They become a tangible representation of the economic and social disparities prevalent in the washerwoman's world.

4. **Frost-Freckled Mornings and Sun-Scorched Afternoons:**

   The contrasting images of frost-freckled mornings and sun-scorched afternoons symbolize the extremes of the washerwoman's work environment. They reflect the harsh conditions she faces, highlighting the relentless nature of her labor.

5. **Foaming Mouth:**

   The foaming mouth during the moment of collapse could symbolize the overwhelming burden and emotional strain the washerwoman bears. It becomes a manifestation of her inner turmoil and desperation.

6. **Divine Revelation:**

   The divine message received during the prayer symbolizes a moment of enlightenment and guidance for the washerwoman. It transforms her perspective, suggesting a higher purpose to her struggles and bringing a sense of spiritual fulfillment.

7. **Gilded Sin and Bowl of Pink Gin:**

   The symbols of "gilded sin" and "a bowl of pink gin" represent excess, indulgence, and luxury. They serve as metaphors for the lifestyle of the privileged class, contrasting sharply with the washerwoman's modest and toilsome existence.

8. **Thanksgiving:**

   The repetition of "Thank you Lord" symbolizes the washerwoman's acceptance of her fate and her gratitude for the divine revelation. It marks a transformative moment where she finds meaning and purpose in her labor.

In summary, the poem uses various symbols to convey deeper meanings and layers of significance, allowing readers to engage with the themes of labor, social injustice, spirituality, and transformation on a symbolic level.


1. **Metaphor - "Her hands / raw, knobbly and calloused":**

   This metaphor compares the washerwoman's hands to the physical manifestation of her labor, emphasizing the harshness and difficulty of her work over the years.

2. **Simile - "Her face / Like a bean skin soaked in brine":**

   This simile paints a vivid picture of the weariness on the washerwoman's face, likening it to a bean skin soaked in brine to convey a sense of fatigue and perhaps bitterness.

3. **Metaphor - "Soiled by a lord's luxuries":**

   This metaphor equates the clothes soiled by luxuries to the moral stain or impurity caused by the excesses and indulgences of the privileged class.

4. **Simile - "In frost-freckled mornings":**

   This simile compares the mornings to being freckled with frost, creating an image of a cold, harsh environment that further emphasizes the challenging conditions of the washerwoman's labor.

5. **Simile - "Like a bean skin soaked in brine":**

   This simile not only describes the appearance of the face but also suggests a sense of bitterness or hardship, using the soaked bean skin as a metaphor for the emotional toll on the washerwoman.

6. **Metaphor - "Mouth a foaming spout":**

   This metaphorical description of the mouth as a foaming spout adds intensity to the portrayal of the washerwoman's distress during her moment of collapse, conveying a sense of emotional overflow.

7. **Metaphor - "'Good Lord! Dear Lord!' she shouted":**

   The addressing of the Lord is metaphorical, symbolizing a plea or cry for help in the face of adversity, adding a spiritual layer to the poem.

8. **Metaphor - "'Suffer for those who live in gilded sin'":**

   This metaphorical instruction from the divine instructs the washerwoman to bear the burdens of those living in luxury, turning her labor into a symbolic form of atonement or sacrifice.

9. **Simile - "Toil for those who swim in a bowl of pink gin":**

   This simile compares the privileged class swimming in a bowl of pink gin, symbolizing their life of indulgence and excess, contrasting sharply with the washerwoman's toil.

10. **Metaphor - "Never again will I ask / Why must I carry this task":**

    The task becomes a metaphor for the burdens and challenges in the washerwoman's life, and her resolution not to question it signifies a deeper acceptance and understanding.

These metaphors and similes contribute to the rich imagery in the poem, allowing readers to visualize and empathize with the experiences and emotions of the washerwoman.


The language and diction in "The Washerwoman's Prayer" play a crucial role in conveying the themes, emotions, and vivid imagery within the poem.

1. **Descriptive Language:**

   The poet employs descriptive language to vividly depict the physical attributes of the washerwoman. Phrases like "raw, knobbly and calloused hands" and "bean skin soaked in brine" provide tangible images that evoke a sense of the harshness and weariness in her appearance.

2. **Figurative Language:**

   The use of metaphors and similes enhances the figurative language in the poem. Metaphors such as "Soiled by a lord's luxuries" and similes like "Like a bean skin soaked in brine" add depth, allowing readers to interpret broader meanings related to social disparity and emotional struggles.

3. **Concise Diction:**

   The poet utilizes concise diction to convey powerful emotions and messages in a succinct manner. Each word is carefully chosen to contribute to the overall impact of the poem, such as "drudged murmurless" and "foaming spout," which succinctly capture moments of labor and distress.

4. **Repetition:**

   The repetition of phrases like "Good Lord! Dear Lord!" and "Thank you Lord" contributes to the rhythmic flow of the poem. This repetition serves as a stylistic device, emphasizing the washerwoman's plea and eventual gratitude in the context of her prayer.

5. **Dialogical Language:**

   The use of dialogue in the form of the washerwoman's prayer adds a conversational and personal touch to the poem. The direct address to the Lord, as well as the divine response, creates a dialogue that enhances the spiritual and introspective elements of the narrative.

6. **Symbolic Language:**

   The poet employs symbolic language, such as "gilded sin" and "a bowl of pink gin," to convey deeper meanings related to social and economic disparities. These symbols enrich the thematic exploration of the poem.

7. **Transformation in Language:**

   The language undergoes a transformation in the concluding lines, shifting from a tone of distress to one of acceptance and gratitude. Phrases like "Never again will I ask / Why must I carry this task" reflect a change in the washerwoman's perspective, marked by a newfound understanding.

In summary, the language and diction in the poem are carefully crafted to evoke powerful imagery, convey complex emotions, and enhance the overall impact of the themes explored in "The Washerwoman's Prayer."


The structure of "The Washerwoman's Prayer" contributes to the poem's overall impact, shaping its rhythm, pacing, and emphasis on key elements.

1. **Stanzas:**

   The poem is divided into stanzas, each containing a specific focus or stage in the narrative. The stanzas create a sense of organization and allow for thematic developments as the poem progresses.

2. **Line Length:**

   The poem features varying line lengths, contributing to its rhythmic quality. Shorter lines, such as "Good Lord! Dear Lord!" and longer lines like "Clothes Soiled by a lord's luxuries," create a dynamic flow that adds to the poem's expressive nature.

3. **Enjambment:**

   Enjambment is used throughout the poem, where sentences and thoughts continue beyond the end of a line. This technique creates a fluidity that connects lines and stanzas, contributing to the poem's conversational and introspective tone.

4. **Repetition:**

   The repetition of phrases like "Thank you Lord" and the refrain of the washerwoman's prayer serve to reinforce key themes and moments. This repetition contributes to the poem's structure, emphasizing the significance of certain lines and creating a rhythmic pattern.

5. **Shifts in Tone:**

   The structure allows for shifts in tone, particularly noticeable in the transition from the description of the washerwoman's labor to the prayerful moment and the concluding lines. These shifts contribute to the overall emotional and thematic arc of the poem.

6. **Narrative Flow:**

   The poem follows a narrative flow, unfolding the story of the washerwoman's toil, her moment of collapse, the divine revelation, and the resolution. This sequential structure allows for a coherent exploration of themes and events.

7. **Concluding Lines:**

   The poem concludes with a couplet that marks a resolution and transformation in the washerwoman's perspective. This deliberate choice of structure in the conclusion provides a sense of closure and completeness to the poem.

In summary, the structure of "The Washerwoman's Prayer" is characterized by stanzas, varied line lengths, enjambment, repetition, and a narrative flow that collectively contribute to the poem's expressive and thematic impact.


The poem "The Washerwoman's Prayer" incorporates sound and rhythm to enhance its emotional impact and create a distinct auditory experience for the reader.

1. **Rhyme:**

   The poem exhibits a rhyme scheme in certain sections, contributing to its rhythmic quality. For example, the end rhyme in the lines "tormented" and "lamented" adds a musicality to the prayer, emphasizing the emotional tone.

2. **Alliteration:**

   Alliteration is utilized to create a rhythmic and melodic quality. Phrases like "frost-freckled mornings" and "sun-scorched afternoons" employ repeated consonant sounds, enhancing the auditory experience and contributing to the descriptive imagery.

3. **Assonance:**

   Assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds, is present in phrases like "bean skin soaked in brine" and "foaming spout." This repetition adds a smooth and flowing quality to the language, contributing to the overall musicality.

4. **Repetition:**

   The repetition of phrases, especially in the washerwoman's prayer ("Good Lord! Dear Lord!" and "Thank you Lord"), serves as a rhythmic device. This repetition emphasizes key moments, creating a steady and deliberate pace.

5. **Meter:**

   While the poem doesn't strictly adhere to a specific meter, there is a noticeable rhythmic flow. The varying line lengths contribute to this rhythmic quality, allowing for a natural cadence that suits the contemplative and prayerful tone.

6. **Conversational Rhythm:**

   The poem's structure and language contribute to a conversational rhythm. The use of enjambment and the direct address to the Lord in the form of a prayer create a conversational and intimate tone, enhancing the overall rhythm.

7. **Contrast in Sound:**

   The poet employs contrasting sounds to emphasize the disparities in the washerwoman's life. Phrases like "frost-freckled mornings" and "sun-scorched afternoons" juxtapose the harshness of her working conditions, creating an auditory contrast.

8. **Onomatopoeia:**

   The phrase "foaming spout" contains onomatopoeic elements, as the words themselves convey a sense of agitation and turbulence. This adds an auditory dimension to the description of the washerwoman's distress.

In summary, the poem utilizes rhyme, alliteration, assonance, repetition, and a conversational rhythm to create an auditory experience that complements the thematic content. These sound and rhythm elements contribute to the poem's emotional resonance and expressive qualities.


The syntax in "The Washerwoman's Prayer" plays a significant role in shaping the flow, emphasis, and emotional impact of the poem.

1. **Inversion:**

   The poem occasionally uses inversion, altering the typical word order for emphasis. For example, in "In frost-freckled mornings," the inversion places emphasis on the harshness of the mornings, contributing to the vivid imagery.

2. **Parallel Structure:**

   The poet employs parallel structure, repeating certain phrases with similar grammatical structures. For instance, the repetition of "Good Lord! Dear Lord!" and "Thank you Lord" creates a parallelism that enhances the rhythmic quality of the prayer.

3. **Fragmentation:**

   The use of short phrases and sentence fragments adds a sense of urgency and emotion. For example, "How long have I lamented? / Tell me Lord, tell me O Lord" employs fragmented syntax to convey the washerwoman's desperate questioning.

4. **Ellipsis:**

   Ellipsis is used in phrases like "raw, knobbly and calloused," creating a sense of omission and allowing readers to fill in the details of the washerwoman's hands. This adds to the poem's evocative nature.

5. **Enjambment:**

   Enjambment is prevalent throughout the poem, allowing thoughts and sentences to flow seamlessly from one line to the next. This technique creates a fluidity that contributes to the conversational and introspective tone.

6. **Interrogative Syntax:**

   The use of interrogative syntax, as seen in "Why am I so tormented? / How long have I lamented?" adds a direct and questioning element to the washerwoman's plea, intensifying the emotional impact.

7. **Imperative Sentences:**

   Imperative sentences are used in the divine response, such as "Suffer for those who live in gilded sin, / Toil for those who swim in a bowl of pink gin." This syntax imparts a commanding and instructive tone to the divine message.

8. **Concluding Declarative Statements:**

   The concluding lines, "Never again will I ask / Why must I carry this task," use declarative syntax to express the washerwoman's resolution. The straightforward structure emphasizes her newfound acceptance.

In summary, the syntax in "The Washerwoman's Prayer" contributes to the poem's overall impact by creating a rhythmic flow, emphasizing key moments, and conveying the emotional depth of the washerwoman's experience. The use of inversion, parallel structure, fragmentation, and various syntactic techniques enhances the expressive and contemplative nature of the poem.


"The Washerwoman's Prayer" is a poem by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, a South African poet born in 1940. His works often reflect the socio-political landscape of South Africa during the apartheid era. Although specific details about the context of this poem might not be readily available, considering Mtshali's background can offer insights into the potential themes and inspirations.

During the apartheid era, which lasted from 1948 to the early 1990s, South Africa faced systematic racial segregation and discrimination. The poems of Mtshali, including "The Washerwoman's Prayer," often explore the harsh realities faced by black South Africans, addressing themes of labor, inequality, and the resilience of the human spirit.

The poem's focus on a washerwoman and her prayer suggests a commentary on the social and economic disparities of the time. The washerwoman's labor, the soiled clothes of the master, and the divine revelation may symbolize the broader struggles and injustices faced by the marginalized communities.

Additionally, Mtshali's works are known for incorporating oral traditions, vivid imagery, and a blend of English and indigenous languages. This stylistic choice adds cultural richness to his poetry and reflects the diverse linguistic landscape of South Africa.

While specific historical or biographical details about the poem might not be readily available, understanding the broader context of apartheid in South Africa provides a backdrop for interpreting Mtshali's poetry, including "The Washerwoman's Prayer."


In conclusion, "The Washerwoman's Prayer" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali weaves a poignant tapestry of imagery, emotion, and spirituality. Through vivid descriptions and evocative language, the poem captures the weariness of a washerwoman's labor, the social injustices of apartheid-era South Africa, and a transformative moment of divine revelation.

Mtshali's careful use of metaphors, similes, and symbolic language allows readers to delve into the complexities of the washerwoman's life, emphasizing themes of labor, sacrifice, and resilience. The poem's structure, with its rhythmic flow, enjambment, and strategic repetition, enhances the emotional impact and guides the reader through the various stages of the narrative.

The syntax, characterized by inversion, parallelism, and interrogative elements, contributes to the poem's unique cadence and adds layers to the washerwoman's plea and the divine response. The poem's conclusion, marked by declarative statements and a shift in the washerwoman's perspective, brings a sense of acceptance and gratitude, offering resolution to the thematic tensions explored throughout the verses.

While specific details about the historical or biographical context of the poem might be limited, the broader understanding of apartheid-era South Africa provides a backdrop for interpreting Mtshali's themes of social injustice and inequality.

In essence, "The Washerwoman's Prayer" stands as a testament to Mtshali's ability to blend cultural richness, social commentary, and spiritual reflection into a powerful piece of poetry that resonates with readers, inviting them to empathize with the struggles and triumphs of the washerwoman's journey.

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