Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

There are a number of significant themes in “Meditation on a Memoir.” First, the memoir is a common theme for Cunningham. In “To a Student,” he distinguishes memoirs from fiction: “Fiction is fiction: its one theme/ Is its allegiance to its scheme./ Memoir is memoir: there your heart/ Awaits the judgment of your heart.” Fiction is an imaginative creation that is true to its “scheme” or art. Memoirs subordinate art and design to one’s “heart.” Fiction is a classical form, while a memoir is a Romantic form.

Will is another important theme. Cunningham uses will in the Shakespearean sense: It represents people’s untrammeled desires that must be controlled by reason and conscience. Cunningham wrote a critical essay on a phrase by Hamlet to his mother: “Reason panders wills.” In this example, reason should guide but instead gives license to the will to act. It is clearly an important theme to Cunningham as a Shakespearean scholar and a poet. The average reader may not realize what is at stake with the seemingly innocent first line: “Who knows his will?” Cunningham has a classical perspective on art and morality; the will should be controlled rather than exercised or revealed.

The controlling metaphor of the poem is also directly related to the theme. The poem begins by questioning people’s abilities to know and then reveal their wills and moves to an obliteration of any control by them. They are tossed around at the...

(The entire section is 494 words.)