Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“In Cold Hell, in Thicket” is about the process of understanding. The poem begins in a state of utter desolation brought on by the adverse circumstances in which the poet finds himself. These feelings have nothing to do with the actual setting he confronts, but his perception or misperception of what he sees is an indication of how far removed he is from the world. As the poem unfolds, one watches the procedure by which the landscape comes to represent the speaker’s inner turmoil. The second half of the poem, however, reverses the flow of Romantic meditation by refusing to accept this view of the world as real. Instead, the speaker renounces his despair and searches to discover how the world is not only different from himself, but of a form that remains perfect and inalterable in its integrity.

By accepting the primacy of the natural order of things as the true picture of the world, Olson’s persona decides he must rediscover the order within himself, beneath the emotional chaos of his feelings. As he remarks to himself near the close of part I, only by exact and precise attention can the real underlying form of self be discovered. The poem is a lesson in self-analysis, a way of confronting the pains of experience without ending in pity and remorse. The meditation demands of the speaker a clear, open attention to the details of feeling, and when properly traced, will reveal that the single self, the isolated human in the landscape, is a fiction. The truth of human nature is that it belongs within the matrix of other life, and that its responsibilities are to others, not only to the isolated individual. The poem renounces that aspect of individuality in which selfish desires are primary. Instead, the concept of the individual is redefined in the poem to mean an originality of attention focused on a world of connected life and its system of relations. The poem ends with the speaker reentering the world as an imaginative participant, no longer the grieving outsider.