Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Tenebrae” is a poem of shadows, of multiple meanings eclipsing one another. This juxtaposition of meaning using single images provides it with layers of context. Beyond the Christian facade are Jewish underpinnings. Likewise, behind the symbolism of normative Judaism one finds reference to the Kabbala, the Jewish mystical and esoteric tradition. Finally, both Surrealism and existentialism play important roles.

The poem reads like a strange, surreal prayer. Anger and loss predominate in describing the relationship with God. The use of the pronoun “we” flows naturally in Jewish thought and practice, in which regulations strictly mandate communal prayer. Ashamnu, literally “we have sinned,” is the prayer that runs alphabetically through the list of transgressions asking for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The use of “we” establishes the importance and culpability of all people in the face of God.

It is not clear that the condition described is the result of any specific sin. In fact, the angry tone of the poem implies that an injustice has been done against humanity. As the poem proceeds, it seems that “we” have acted out of obedience to God. “We” are near, and “we” went to the trough like cattle, bent over, submitted to be watered, and drank as directed. Yet this violation continued. The Lord, the shepherd, shed the blood of his own flock. “We” even drank it in obedience to God. The...

(The entire section is 567 words.)