Themes

Death

Paterson explores death throughout this poem. There are many images that imply death:

  • the worn coffin-like pool table where the potted balls go
  • the coin in the tongue of the slot
  • the striplight in its cowl
  • the black’s vanishing trick
  • the boat on the black water

The title itself is significant here, as it alludes to Charon and his ferry that carries the souls of the dead to the Underworld. As well as being the name of the pub, in death we are all 'in the ferryman’s arms' and there is nothing we can do to about it. The idea of the pool game appropriately portrays the haphazard nature of it. Sometimes you can predict it – the shots are set up – the ball will obviously be potted; but others it is random and unexplained – a sudden immaculate clearance that leaves us wondering what happened. The sense of fate is implied throughout, as if there is some ‘other’ that is dictating the game when our backs are turned.

Duality

This is a common theme in Scottish literature and one that pervades this poem. In order to emphasise the opposites of life versus death, Paterson uses many other contrasts throughout the poem:

  • the half-pint of Guinness – a drink that is black with white foam at the top
  • the black and white pool balls
  • the presence and absence of the balls – the potted and unpotted
  • the winner and loser of the game

All these work to develop duality in the poem which reminds us of the ultimate paradox that amidst life we are in death.