Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

Contemporary writers who, like Warren, were born at the beginning of the twentieth century have lived through the most rapid and spectacular social changes of any comparable period of history. This is particularly true for the South, which lingered in the rural, agrarian mode longer than other areas of the United States. Presumably at least, the backcountry does not even exist anymore. There is no place quite so isolated in its social choices, so insulated from information about the outside world, and so limited in its resources for entertainment or inspiration.

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Although this poem provides a humorous commentary on the limitations of life in the backcountry, particularly the emotional poverty that at times led to what some would call religious hysteria, Warren approaches this time with a gentle and tolerant mood. Warren was and remained an unbeliever of strict fundamentalist religion. Yet he recognized that it answered a need that all people have, especially those who cannot distract themselves with the toys of a modern industrial society.

No matter what the excesses of revivalist camp meetings, these emotional encounters renewed a dream of salvation in lives that were often grim and repetitive. They assuaged what the poet calls “The late-season pain gnawing deep at the human bone.”

Traveling preachers in the backcountry were often totally untrained for their calling. It was literally a calling—that is, they responded to a personal call from God, leaving behind whatever mode of life or occupation they had devised to make a living. They probably read the Bible, at least superficially, but they excelled mostly in fire-and-brimstone oratory. With the threat of damnation, these preachers sought to coerce sinners into accepting the “amazing grace” of a forgiving God.

This poem suggests that the young Warren was more frightened than inspired by the Christian message. Whether this rejection stemmed from rebellion, from a renewed devotion to sin as the boy dimly perceived it, or from an unconscious covenant with another source of inspiration remains somewhat ambiguous. Considering the subdued implication of the star and the spring, one may assume that Warren felt closer to God in the woods than he ever did in the revivalists’ tent.

Some of Warren’s other meditative poems written late in his life indicate that the moral and theological questions of religion continued to be live issues. Perhaps he was not immune to “The late-season pain gnawing deep at the human bone.” Such poems as “A Way to Love God” and “Trying to Tell You Something” suggest that the fear is gone but that the mystery of fate remains. The imagery of these poems comes more from nature than from organized religion to provide insight into meaning and human fate.

There are no answers in the sense of doctrine or easy promises for future bliss. There is only the tremendous reality of experience and the overwhelming drive in the poet to give that experience adequate expression. Yet there is a certain hope, not exactly of salvation, but of some new remarkable insight that comes only, perhaps, at the point of death.

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