Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is about a solitary wanderer suspended between two worlds: a “dark void” and a world that represents “all kindness.” Though the poet seems detached throughout his journey, he is nevertheless deeply involved in conflicting emotions and meanings. The poem’s title—“Cross Ties”—suggests conflict from the very beginning, and by repeating the word “ties,” the first line emphasizes the central theme of bonding. Past beliefs (“ties left over”) do not bind the poet tightly, but they remain. Wandering in the night along a rusted railroad track, the poet discovers a way to “sever” those ties that keep him uncommitted—he can “sidestep or go down before.”

Between the thought of self-destruction and the final acquiescence (“I let them sprinkle”), the poet finds himself amid a swirl of violent motions—the imagined train, the wind that “flings,” the hawk that strafes. In a world of random disorder, he ties together its parts. Belief synthesizes as he makes invisible connections. He is at the center but has no center. Instead of sure belief, he finds indifference, discord, and the threat of violence. The way out of this swirling dilemma is to commit himself to an “indifferent” mechanical yet demonic force or to one that seems to be “all kindness.” Both demand obeisance. For the Devil, he throws spilled salt. For the other, he lets “them sprinkle water” on his child.

While the poet walks the...

(The entire section is 495 words.)