Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem opens with a dependent clause: “Not having found your way out.” The speaker then uses the imperative mode: “begin/ Looking for somewhere to bed down at nightfall.” In pointing out that the persona in the poem has “nothing/ But part of yourself to lie on,” the speaker implies that the persona must now lie on the bare ground and that the persona has only the self on whom to rely. In the “charmed circle/ Of the night,” the persona will discover the way out of the woods, presumably out of confusion and uncertainty. In effect, as the penultimate line declares, the experience of being lost will lead the persona to find “the right way out.” One runs into such circumstances frequently in literature and life. Dante Alighieri’s persona in La Divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy) is lost “in a dark woods,” where he is confronted by wild beasts. A common, paradoxical motif of mysticism holds that light breaks forth out of darkness or that one must become aware of being lost in order to find one’s way, and the result is a spiritual awakening or “enlightenment.” Essentially, that is what happens in this poem.

The key to the enlightenment of the persona may be found about midway through the poem, where the persona is described as sleeping without ceiling or walls for the first time. In direct contact with the “imponderable” earth, the threshold between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between the conscious and the unconscious, and between sight and insight is depicted as “slackening.” The “place where it is always/ Light” is the dream world of the unconscious where the stars that are concealed by leaves and branches in ordinary forests “burn/ At the mattering source/ Forever.” Although the playfully sinister speaker teases the persona with the possibility of being reduced to physical food for mites and spiritual sustenance for angels, the persona is assured that “whatever they can’t keep is yours for the asking.” The persona then promptly “sees” the beauties of the green world and light, and whatever problems led that person into the woods are forgotten. It is at that point, only in the last line of the poem, that the speaker informs the persona, “Now, you may waken.” The theme of spiritual awakening, of regeneration and enlightenment through the medium of solitude in nature, is fundamental to this poem.