Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem’s title states its topic: the “distances” that human beings create that isolate them from one another and from the world in which they live. Distances separate men from women, fathers from sons, the old from the young, the divine from the human, and the superficial self from the deep self. The poem suggests that such distances arise because people misunderstand the nature of love; instead of recognizing love as a universal force of nature that “places all where each is, as they are, for every moment,” they understand love to mean their own “mastery” or “control” over whatever persons or objects they find most precious. Love then becomes perverted into little more than a form of greed. Like the German inventor, people convince themselves that they can turn death into life, or they search for the “secret” that will “undo distance” and give them the mastery they desire.

The poem suggests that human beings, having created these “distances” by seeing human relationships in terms of “mastery” or “control,” cannot hope to “undo distance” by means of mastery or control. Instead they must yield to the power of love, a divine force of nature personified by Aphrodite, which alone can heal “the impossible distance” between man and woman, father and son, the old and the young, the divine and the human, the superficial self and the deep self.

Pygmalion is mistaken when he believes that he can somehow compel or possess Aphrodite’s love by producing a stone image of her and setting it in his bed—that is precisely the kind of misunderstanding of love that creates “the distances.” However, unlike the German inventor, Pygmalion corrects his mistake when, instead of seeking to control the goddess, he yields to her power and adopts a reverent attitude of prayer. It is this new attitude, this change of heart, that leads the goddess to bring the stone to life—not as Aphrodite, which was Pygmalion’s original greedy desire, but as Galatea, an actual woman who is capable of giving to Pygmalion what each human, according to this poem, needs most vitally: love.