Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Home Course in Religion” is a poem about hunger (literally and figuratively) and the human pain or suffering that is a prerequisite to growth. In the poem, Soto explores the motif of hunger and universalizes one man’s search for spiritual meaning in a world that seems devoid of spirituality.

Soto addresses the issues of hunger and poverty in several of his poems. The poem “Salt,” in Where The Sparrows Work Hard (1987), poignantly describes two young boys whose hunger destroys their energy, even their will to live. “The Wound,” in Tale of Sunlight (1978), focuses on the pain and anguish one young child endures as a result of his abject poverty. Although not directly stated, the boy suffers from a disease endemic to the impoverished. While hunger in both “The Wound” and “Home Course in Religion” begins as actual physical deprivation, it becomes a catalyst to attain a deeper understanding, a metaphysical explanation for the persona’s pain.

The young man’s quest in “Home Course in Religion” is complicated by his increasing involvement with his girlfriend. As his physical attraction to her intensifies, so too do his feelings of guilt and its accompanying remorse. One evening after his girlfriend leaves, he prays in his room, then crosses himself with his “fingertips\ Pushed into [his] flesh.” His sense of guilt leads him to punish himself masochistically for what he perceives to be sins of the...

(The entire section is 477 words.)