Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Perhaps now the poem’s full action can reveal itself as a process from confusion and anxiety toward enlightenment and acceptance of a human history in a natural world. Merrill begins his poem with “Light into the olive entered/ And was oil,” a wonderful image that in fact contains the poem’s action: The movement of light into the natural world (olive) produces the possibility of further light, as human beings process the light-generated olives into olive oil for cooking (human physical sustenance) and lamp oil to penetrate night’s darkness (human spiritual awareness).

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The glory that was Greece,” as every schoolchild knows, is but a remnant of a destroyed past. Socrates drank the hemlock; Athens fell to Sparta and then to Alexander and then to Rome and then to the Turks; the Parthenon’s miraculous beauty of proportioned structure was blown up three hundred years ago, and to see the temple’s great Elgin marbles, even in broken majesty, one needs to go to the British Museum. The reality of Greece’s glory is more memory than actuality. Modern humans are all “after Greece.” Yet so is the poet Merrill, who lives part of the year in Athens and part on Water Street in Stonington, Connecticut, founded not by ancient Greek aesthetic and philosophical genius, but by the dour hardihood of Merrill’s Calvinist American ancestors. Where, then, is home?

When he recalls the elegant little temple on the Acropolis...

(The entire section is 580 words.)