Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While “Hope” focuses on the darker aspects of time’s passage and the human condition, it ultimately is a poem that desires an optimistic vision of the cycle of life. The poem subscribes to a tentative belief in pantheism alongside a fearful awareness of mortality. This paradox—in order to sustain life in the larger sense, the individual must die—is at the very heart of the poem; all its devices and meanings stem from it.

The poem’s tone mimes its meaning: It is a poem that does not brood on the temporal, but rather attempts to find something humorous and tender in it. “To see oneself as struggling,” Matthews said in an interview, “and funny at the same time is the richer and more complicated view.” The protagonist’s obsession for beautiful floors is purposefully trite, quirky, and silly. It is emblematic of the frivolous component of personality; it is part of being human. Conversely, the desire to have a beautiful, healthy child signifies more serious concerns and desires, the same concerns and desires that conceivably bring the greatest fear and supply the deepest love in life.

For a poem that confronts mortality, there is no mourning, no lamentation explicitly stated. Death in “Hope” is a merely a fact, a transaction that perpetuates life in the grander sense. Implicitly—tonally—the poem’s acknowledgment of mortality proposes another complexity: Should one read “Hope” as an ironic or sincere interpretation of the human experience? It would seem off the mark to call “Hope” a gloomy poem because Matthews finds joy and humor in unlikely places. The lightness of the tone further exemplifies this; the best of light poems, it should be noted, are rarely as light as they appear. Matthews offers no clear answer, but he does base his vision on a belief that humanity is part of a larger scheme whose motion is dictated by the forces of nature. Despite this ambiguity, Matthews’s message in “Hope” is clear: Regardless of all ambitions, desires, fears, and hope, one finally must succumb to the will of nature and, in that submission, become one with the whole, surviving only in what one leaves behind.