Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ransom explores change and initiation, drawing attention to the theme in his diction. The first instance appears in the title itself. “Waking” deliberately invokes a time of change, a dawning of consciousness. Rather than a simple return to consciousness, the child awakens to the world, very much as the child in “Jack and the Beanstalk” awakens to full sun and the shadow of the beanstalk, which symbolizes the changed world for Jack. Another word that draws the reader toward change, “transmogrifying,” appears in the middle stanza of the poem, centering the poem on transformation. The bee-sting knot itself “Swell[s] with the venom,” changing an appearance, realistic once more.

This poem suggests several layers of meaning in the word “waking.” At the first level, the child wakes to the meaning of death: Her pet will no longer be in the world with her. At another level the parent wakes to the recognition of helplessness that accompanies all moments of watching a child grow through pain. The child, in fact, cannot “be instructed” but learns on her own; the feeling of uselessness is extremely difficult for many parents to accept. At another level, the speaker recognizes his own similarity to Chucky. If the little girl sees “her dainty-feathered hen” while the father sees “Chucky’s old bald head,” the reader can be assured that the speaker is aware of who in fact is old and bald. The child, the “shining baby” with curly hair, is analogous to the “dainty-feathered hen” of imagination and innocence. The speaker, helpless at this moment of learning for the child, recognizes that his own bald head is likely to communicate the rigor of mortality.

The poem moves beyond the caring parent and toward existential contemplation in a final transformation, erasure to nothingness: “the forgetful kingdom of death.” The word “forgetful” itself suggests the short memory and attention span of a child (realism, once again) as well as the essence of loss and the possibility that all experience and knowledge is ultimately forgotten. The existential question is clearly secondary within “Janet Waking,” however, a poem in which family drama provides the framework for Ransom’s representation of transformation and growth, making visceral a moment of loving and anguished understanding.