Be the Best by Douglas Malloch: Summary & Analysis

Be the Best by Douglas Malloch: Introduction

“Be the Best” is an inspirational poem penned by Douglas Malloch. He was an American poet and short-story writer and Associate editor of American Lumberman which is an adventure magazine based in Chicago. Born in Muskegon, Michigan which used to be the center of the lumbering (work of cutting trees and preparing lumber) industry; he was famously called as “Lumberman’s Poet”. Brother Malloch, as he was known amongst his brothers and friends, was brought up amidst the forest, logging camps, sawmills and lumber yards. The poet was fascinated by the ingenuity, power and sheer beauty of nature.

His poem “Be the Best” shows how keenly he observed Mother Nature. The title of the poem itself reveals the meaning of the poem and its concept. He is trying to tell us that whatever we do, we need to be the best. He has used examples from the nature to convey his message. The poet wants us to know that no job is less important and we need not be ashamed of what we are. Although we all dream of doing great deeds and being at the top, what really matters is the contribution we make to the society to make it count. We must take pride in our job and accomplish it with our best effort. It’s good to be a pine tree on the top of the hill, but you can still be noticeable by being the best bush beside the stream making the valley beautiful.

The theme of the poem is inspirational and instructional, making it a great didactic poem.

Form and rhyme scheme

The poem is very simple in theme and language. The poem consists of four stanzas containing four lines each. It follows a rhyme scheme of ‘abab’. The last word of every line rhymes with every alternate line like ‘hill’ and ’rill’, ’be’ and ‘tree’ etc. throughout the poem. Use of the conditional clauses beginning with ‘if’ gives the poem a good flow and supports the theme of the poem very well.

Be the Best: Figures of Speech

Douglas Malloch here in this poem has used contrasting examples from nature to make metaphors for something big and its corresponding small one in regard to achievements in life:

  • A pine versus a Scrub
  • A tree versus a bush
  • A bush versus a bit of grass
  • Muskie versus bass
  • Captain versus crew
  • Highway versus trail and
  • The sun versus a star

Alliteration is used in some of the lines as shown below:

If you can’t be a bush be a bit of the grass,
And some highway happier make;

Repetition is also used in the following lines:

There’s big work to do and there’s lesser to do,
And the task we must do is the near.

There’s a transferred epithet or hypallage in the line:

And some highway happier make;

The grass can make the people happier, not the highway.

Antithesis is found in the line —

It isn’t by size that you win or fail

And, the poet has created visual imagery in the expressions “a pine on the top of the hill”, “The best little scrub by the side of the rill”, “the liveliest bass in the lake” etc.

Be the Best: Line by Line Explanation

Stanza 1

If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill
Be a scrub in the valley- but be
The best little scrub by the side of the rill;
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree

The poem starts by giving examples of nature. The poet says that if you can’t be a pine tree standing tall on the top of the hill then that doesn’t mean you are not worthy enough to be a part of the forest. You can always be the best scrub in the valley beside the rill (rivulet) making the valley beautiful. The tall pine trees may form large forests but without scrub by the side of the stream, the valley would lose its charm. So atleast be the best scrub if not a pine tree. He is trying to say that be the best employee if you can’t be the boss. He further adds that if we can’t be as strong as a tree then atleast be a bush.

Stanza 2

If you can’t be a bush be a bit of the grass,
And some highway happier make;
If you can’t be a Muskie then just be a bass
But the liveliest bass in the lake!

Here he again says that if we can’t be a bush than be a tuft of grass because a bit of grass along the highways can also make it prettier and happier. He then moves to another aspects of nature to prove his point. He says that if you can’t be a Muskie (common name of Muskellunge fish), a relatively uncommon and rare freshwater fish native to North America; be a Bass (an edible fish) but the liveliest Bass in the lake. The Muskie may be precious and hard to catch but they aren’t favorites of the locals.

Stanza 3

We can’t all be captains, we’ve got be crew,
There’s something for all of us here.
There’s big work to do and there’s lesser to do,
And the task we must do is the near.

Douglas Malloch wants us to be happy and optimistic. He says that if we can’t be the captain of the ship, we can be the crew. A captain alone can’t sail through the seas. He wants us to know that there is always something for us and we should be proud whatever we are. He explains that in this society, every work has its own importance and no work is to be ashamed of. What would happen if everyone wants to be a doctor or a businessman? Who would look after the smaller jobs of the society? There would be no one to keep our roads clean, there would be no one to mend our shoes. So he explains that we should do the task which is at hand rather than running towards bigger tasks as every job needs to be completed.

Stanza 4

If you can’t be a highway then just be a trail,
If you can’t be the sun then be a star;
It isn’t by size that you win or fail —
Be the best of whatever you are!

In the last stanza he further adds that if we can’t be a highway, we can always be a narrow pathway. Some of the most beautiful parts of the nature are led by trails, not by highways. He further adds that if we can’t be the gigantic Sun, we should just be a twinkling star. He says that size doesn’t matter, your success will depend only on how good you are at it and if you are making noticeable contribution to the society. The poet concludes the poem reiterating that what matters is whether you are the best in your field.

One thing that we should not miss is the poet’s power of observation. He has noticed it very well that the smaller and lesser important objects of nature draw our attention just like the big and important ones when and only when they make the surroundings beautiful or give us some special feelings. We see the sun as an important celestial body but we also stare at the stars as they make the dark sky so beautiful. We may look at the tall pine trees with awe, but we also gaze at the green patches in the valleys or on the roadside, just because they make the nature beautiful and give us a good feeling.

Douglas realized this human psychology and turned to the society to share his wisdom. Similarly, we can make us prominent by being like those stars or the patches of grass, if not the sun and the pine itself. To say so, we have to make contributions that are noticeable and for that we have to be the best in our respective fields, no matter what we do.