Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

No poem exists in a vacuum; all poems are part of a long tradition of writing. By placing a poem in the context of literary history, its themes and meanings can become more apparent. Shapiro is writing in a literary tradition that dates back to the era of classical myth. Both Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey (800 b.c.e.; Eng. trans., 1616) and Aeneas in Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e..; Eng. trans., 1553) make trips to the underworld, penetrating the boundary between the living and the dead. There, through blood sacrifices, the dead are able to speak, and the Greek and Roman heroes are able to see the sufferings of those, such as Sisyphus and Tantalus, who offended the gods.

La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), by Dante, is another example of this type of writing. In this fourteenth century epic poem Dante is led by Vergil through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Here he is able to hear directly from the dead which sins they committed that caused them to suffer, or which acts of generosity brought them to heaven. In a more modern version of this story, Seamus Heaney, a poet Shapiro reveres, writes of a deceased cousin who was killed in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. In “The Strand at Lough Beg” (1979), Heaney does not speak with the dead man, but he meets his dead cousin, washes mud from his body, and lays him out as if to bury him....

(The entire section is 461 words.)