Study Guide

Audubon

by Robert Penn Warren

Audubon Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Audubon: A Vision develops three related themes that Warren used over and over in his fiction and poetry: the quest for identity, the loss of innocence, and reconciliation to the changes brought by time. The last two might be expressed in religious terms as the Fall and the Redemption. Warren was well acquainted with and skillful in the use of traditional Christian imagery, but he was more likely to consider these issues as psychological conditions or rites of passage than as religious doctrine. The psychological journey unfolds from an inner necessity.

Each of these themes has a double, or perhaps even a triple, layer of meaning in the poem. Each applies personally to Audubon, the naturalist and painter, and his quest for identity and validation for his life’s work. Each applies as well to America as a whole, which was living through radical changes at the same time, losing its wild, free heritage of wilderness. Was the white man bringing “civilization” or simply corrupting an order more finely tuned to the needs of living things than anything men have invented since?

One cannot turn back the clock, however, or regain the original paradise (if, indeed, it ever existed—either in childhood or in the primeval forest). Warren does insist that the vision does not die, admitting that “For everything there is a season./ But there is a dream/ Of a season past all seasons.” Some might call this sentimental, but Warren probably considered it an archetypal idea necessary to maintain one’s moral equilibrium in a fallen world. It may also be the primary source of art: Audubon would probably not have painted pictures, nor would Warren have written poetry, without that dream.

This suggests the hidden third layer of meaning that may be assumed, given some knowledge of Warren’s life. As suggested above, Warren himself aspired to being a painter of wildlife. He took lessons for a while as a child but learned...

(The entire section is 797 words.)