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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In developing its themes relating to death, grief, and loss, “Angle of Geese” departs in significant ways from some traditional aspects of the elegy. In general, elegiac poems express the movement of a speaker through a process of grieving that comprises several phases. A typical formal elegy, including such famous examples as John Milton’s “Lycidas” or Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son,” contains certain elements: an exposition of the loss, explaining who has died, and an expression of deep feeling—sorrow often mixed with outrage at the injustice and inexplicability of the particular loss. The elegist then typically introduces some philosophical statement regarding death: a universal principle that rationalizes death or endows it with some positive quality. Finally, the elegist will apply the universal principle to his or her individual situation and come to some reconciliation or at least resignation by placing the individual loss in a context of larger meaning. Sometimes hope or resolve for the future is expressed. Not all elegies contain all these steps, but at least some of them are characteristic of elegiac poetry.

Momaday, rather than moving discursively through the elegiac form, depends on the juxtaposition of the two events—the death of the child, and the remembered goose hunt—to imply by association the relationship of the individual death to the universal fact of death. The child’s death remains beyond rational thought and language, an enigma and profoundly disturbing thought for which any attempt at explanation would be an impertinence. The death of the goose, on the other hand, is accepted as part of life (the hunt which killed the goose is suppressed in the poem, and the goose seems to fall spontaneously from the sky before the awed gaze of uninvolved watchers); the animal struggles neither for life nor against death, but remains a detached yet fully conscious participant in the cycle of nature.

Yet the poet makes no explicit connection between the natural cycle of life and death, as recognized in the memory of the...

(The entire section is 508 words.)