At the Executed Murderer's Grave Themes

James Wright

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The first two versions of the poem appeared in Botteghe Oscure (a quote from which appeared above) and Poetry, respectively. Wright was unsatisfied with both versions and asked James Dickey (the J. L. D. to whom the final version is dedicated), the poet who would later write “The Fiend” and other psychological poems, for help. While aboard a train, without a copy of the earlier versions and with only the memory of Dickey’s verbal comments, Wright wrote the final version.

Topical poems such as this are difficult. No matter which insights the poet brings to bear, opinions precede him. With controversial subjects like capital punishment and sympathy for criminals, he knew he could not avoid treading on zealously held beliefs of the 1950’s. As a result, he and the poem were vulnerable to attack. Commendably, Wright allowed his beliefs and feelings to shine forth, and the subsequent development of not only his own poems but also of modern poetry in general is better for this painstaking exhibition.

The epigraph of the poem is from Sigmund Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930; Civilization and Its Discontents, 1961), a work that shows that civilization is possible only by the individual’s renunciation of deep-seated pleasures and aggressions. The puzzling quote is about the biblical admonition “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” a topic that leads Freud to declare subsequently, “[Civilization]...

(The entire section is 518 words.)