Study Guide

Fear and Trembling

by Robert Penn Warren

Fear and Trembling Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Fear and Trembling” is about an old poet’s desire to commune with nature and his doubts about his ability and poetry’s power to do so at a time in his life when an inner energy makes him ripe for poetic creation and communion with nature.

The poem is a modern American Romantic poem, following a well-established literary tradition of searching in nature for meaning in life and worrying about the possibility and authenticity of a poetic communion with nature. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge spearheaded this doubt-ridden Romantic quest for the truths of nature in English poetry; others, such as Thomas Hardy, renewed it in the later nineteenth century, and Robert Frost transported it starkly and darkly to the twentieth century New England scene. Warren continued the Romantic quest, vacillating between affirmation and questioning.

Cleanth Brooks, in Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1965), remarked on Warren’s preoccupation (as early as 1939) with the theme of knowledge and noted those flashes of pessimism that elucidate the limits of human knowledge in poems of his later years: “A number of Warren’s poemsconcern themselves with explorations of the problem of knowledge.The absolutes are gone—are dissolved, indeed, by our consciousness of a plurality of histories and meanings.”