Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

There are two dominant themes in “Memorial for the City”: History can be flat and meaningless fact, or it can be substantial and meaningful fiction. The first theme is introduced in the first part of the poem, to mark the unchanging nature of a classical world before the advent of Christianity, but that theme does not disappear in the time of the “Post-Vergilian City.” Flat and meaningless history as “eternal fact” always threatens to return, to emerge from the domain of substantial, meaningful history, because the foundation of human reality is a nature which is always the same. As a hard exterior, seen with crow’s eyes or camera’s lens, that nature knows no time and has an unchanging history. It returns to threaten repossession of modern humanity, but it never can, because there too much has been added by the Christian era.

Even when people “know without knowing,” when people cannot see where the “barbed-wire” ends, they still know that they “are not to despair” because of history as substantial and meaningful fiction. The point about the fiction, made largely in the last section of the poem, is that it is what imagination makes of the raw material of nature and experience; cities are as much fictions as are the myths about Prometheus or the novels of Herman Melville. Cities express human character, in spirit as well as in body. Since Adam is the constant image behind the mirror, Adam is also the image of the continuing City. Until the heavenly City is reached, Adam’s image, in all mankind, builds and rebuilds its city, waiting to be made perfect.

Finally, the “memorial” made here is a looking back into history to find a source of explanation for present circumstances, in which people suffer from miseries of war; but the “memorial” is also a sign of hope for the future, which may beckon with its promise of another city still to be built. Pride of accomplishment, of monumental buildings, and glittering glass skyscrapers will be undermined by essential human weakness, as all such cities have been in history. The “memorial” is for the death of pride and for the power of frailty to keep human history from becoming “a meaningless moment” of “eternal fact.”