The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Formally, “Against Confidences” consists of eight quatrains, with very short lines of between three and five syllables and an exact alternating rhyme scheme of abab. The poem argues against the modern popularity of pouring forth intimate details, whether in tell-all books, confessional poetry, psychoanalysis, or personal relationships. In a humorous and satiric tone, the poem explains how “Candour,” one of the poem’s series of personified abstractions reminiscent of the British neoclassical verse that Donald Davie esteemed, has changed in its relationship to “loose lips” (stanza 1) or “mouths that now/ Divulge, divulge” (stanza 8).

In the present time—the present being emphasized by the repetition of the word “now” in the opening and closing stanzas—loose lips or divulging mouths describe Candour, in Davie’s British spelling, as “friend.” This situation suggests that would-be confidants, whether in writing or in personal relationships, confuse the indiscriminate spilling of confidential details with frankness and truth.

Moving from a third-person objective point of view to the first-person plural, the poem’s speaker asserts that the genuine revelation of (or quest for) truth signified by Candour cannot exist in the apparently heedless flow of expression in an environment created or distorted by “our compulsive/ Needs” on “couches” where “we sleep, confess,/ Couple.” The word “couches” may signify the bed as the site of an individual’s dreaming or a couple’s lovemaking as well as the psychiatrist’s couch. All these are spheres in which self-interest undermines the ultimate truthfulness of what appears to be candid outpouring.

Returning to the third-person point of view, the speaker defines the main facets of Candour as “reticence” or restraint, the subjection of all talk and feeling to actual test and intellectual examination, and toleration of a degree of privacy, hazy belief, or half-illuminated conviction but discouragement of self-indulgent and deceptive effusiveness.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem’s notable compression in its grammar and in its short lines reflects as well as expresses the idea of truth and meaning inherent in “reticence” rather than its opposite. Likewise, multiple meanings are compacted into several puns and wordplays. The confidences of the title may refer to intimate details; to the state of feeling confident, which would be misplaced in dreaming, lovers’ talk, confessional writing, or psychoanalysis; and to the duplicity of a confidence game, since the apparent candor of flowing expression may not be what it seems.

In contrast, reticence is Candour’s “practise”—a word whose primary meaning is habitual operation but whose secondary meaning of intrigue contrasts Candour’s honesty with the deceptiveness of “loose lips.” This deceptiveness is conveyed by the oxymoron of the “pleased distress” (stanza 3) that people experience on their various “couches.” The distress in turn suggests a discrepancy between the surface of the dream, confessional writing or talk, lovers’ intimate conversations, and the true meanings or feelings that underlie them. Thus, in the midst of an anguished confessional poem, a sense may be conveyed of the poet’s pleasure in his or her pain, in the act of complaining about the causes of the pain, or in the accomplishment of a literary work about the subject.

Several features of neoclassical verse also contribute to the poem’s warning against...

(The entire section is 576 words.)