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What does 'he composed his features' mean?

He wanted to switch it off, but he had to hear it out, he could not stop listening to it, though it hurt him in his heart with the unbearable homesickness of the hopelessly exiled. Even as a cadet this one hymn could fill his eyes with tears; now he kept his face turned away from the others to try to hide from them the drops wetting his cheeks.

When the choir's 'amen' let him do so he switched quickly to some other — any other — program and remained bent over the instrument, pretending to fiddle with it, while he composed his features.

Ordeal in Space By Robert A. Heinlein

  • And you haven't found any potentially applicable definitions for compose, features, or compose [your] features? You're also missing some context which could help you understand this... contextually. – user3395 Apr 15 at 18:47
  • braced himself? – Vitaly Apr 15 at 19:05
  • When you compose your features you remove from your facial expression any sign of emotion, e.g. sadness, mirth, anger, etc. – Michael Harvey Apr 15 at 19:49
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You can get some clues about this from the context. The cadet is listening to a choir and he's crying because of the hurt the song caused in his heart. A cadet is a military person and in that environment crying and other emotion is not usually acceptable, so you can imagine that the cadet has a problem to solve. He doesn't want to be seen crying.

The word 'features' in this case means the features of his face - his eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, etc.

The word 'compose' means to arrange, organize or put into place. It has another meaning that is related to the noun 'composure' and the adjective 'composed', which adds a subtle nuance to the meaning of the sentence. To 'compose yourself' means to become calm. In that sense he is making his face calm.

So the cadet remains bent over, hiding his face, until he can put it into a calm state that doesn't show he's been crying.

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