Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poet speaks through visions as he reflects on the remnants of a dream that inspired a nation before it dwindled into subdivisions, tennis games, and sailboats. The failure represented by the realtors and tennis players may be attributable in part to a hard reality: Whenever the human spirit is brought to material considerations, its death is assured. Looking back, he sees the pioneers, hears their voices and banjos, and sees their spirit rising to heaven; now he sees it stopped by a great barrier, the Pacific. It appears to be time to surrender the dream and settle into comfort, to acquiesce to the inevitable: decay and death. The great singer of this dream, Walt Whitman, should “Lie back,” for the pioneer voice is quieted. In the silence, one hears the speaker’s “dark preoccupation,” dark because he is reminded of other civilizations, once astonishing, now only names.

The “I” in the first stanza represents the poet’s sense of alienation from his surroundings. He has a specific identity, a “New York face,” but by the end of his grand sweep through history, foreign and domestic, the solitary figure has become the “we” that is possessed of a spirit that “cannot turn or stay.” The poet sees a separation of physical manifestations from the human spirit itself. People, things, places—these objectify the spirit, but they eventually die and are sloughed away, like dead skin. The elevated spirit moves onward, drawn by another...

(The entire section is 475 words.)