Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota Themes

James Wright

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although a hammock is made for relaxing, it is confining. When the poet says, “I lean back,” there is not much more he can do. Like rocking chairs, hammocks are very specific pieces of furniture. While it is true sailors slept in hammocks in the confinement of cramped ships, and were even buried at sea in them, when they are transferred to land, hammocks are a novelty, not a necessity. They are an afternoon indulgence of a lazy person, in which the burdens of the workaday world may pleasantly be buried.

Leaning back carefully so he does not fall out, the poet experiences another fortunate moment when he catches sight of “A chicken hawk [floating] over, looking for home.” This is another bit of personification, like the sleeping butterfly. There could be any number of reasons for the chicken hawk to be flying above him. It might be looking for a meal, but the poet decides otherwise. Birds abound in poems, and often they carry symbolic weight.

Almost abruptly the poet concludes, “I have wasted my life.” From butterfly to cowbells, from horse droppings to chicken hawk, how does he arrive at this conclusion? And in what tone are these words spoken? The reader can read the line five ways, emphasizing a different word each time and evoking five different tones of voice. The reader can imagine the words spoken with disgust, with sadness and longing, or with abject resignation, or the reader can hear the five words spoken with a smile of satisfaction, as if to say, “Would that we all could waste our lives so profitably.”

If the poet has wasted his life, then the reader has wasted time poring over thirteen lines. It is for the reader to decide. The surprising announcement “I have wasted my life” is as galvanizing and as challenging as the famous closing line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which commands, “You must revise your life.” Like Rilke, Wright invites the reader to be co-conspirator in “wasting” life with him, this time in a hammock on a Minnesota farm on a late summer evening with nothing more extraordinary than a butterfly, cowbells, horse dung, and a chicken hawk for company.