Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like any good work of art, this poem has several things to offer, but one in particular is the notion that a common language can be a common problem. Language is a major theme throughout Bell’s work, and in this poem he tries to show that humans have two types of language. First, there is natural language, the utterances that humans, as animals, instinctively make—the guttural sounds and consonants that squeeze out of throats. People give no thought as to how or why they make them or to what they mean. These sounds are instinctual, products of evolutionary processes.

The other form of language is synthetic, a system of utterances developed to help communicate more complex and detailed ideas. At its best this type of language is a tool that facilitates cooperation among humans. No matter how far humans think they have evolved, no matter how detailed and protean synthetic language has become, they are still animals. In times of stress, frustration, fear, anger, or any other situation that engenders emotional response, they revert to this first language, a language that is not tied to “an alphabet meant to make sense.”

Throughout the poem Bell makes references to instinctive language as guttural, squeezed, or primarily composed of consonants, whereas he depicts the synthetic type of language as musical and “revered for its vowels.” Inextricably tied to this theme of two types of language is the notion that humans must never allow—as if it were possible—their tendency to analyze things to replace or destroy their ability to feel things. Analysis is often the practice of “some fool” whose elaborate glosses take people further and further away from what they actually feel.

The great irony here is that synthetic language is the meat and potatoes of every poet. In no way does this fact invalidate this poem, however. In fact, it demonstrates that not even poets can tame that language that sometimes explodes to the surface from deep down inside and exposes, for the moment, who people really are.