The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

“August Moon” is a poem of forty-seven lines dispersed among thirteen stanzas varying in length: The shortest stanza has only one line; the longest has eight. It is written entirely in free verse and is, therefore, typical of most of Robert Penn Warren’s poetry in that imagery and metaphor are always the dominant vehicle of expression.

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The title, though ostensibly a simple one, is highly suggestive both as a metaphor and as an image in itself. Literally, it is readily discoverable that the moon is bright and half-full, shining on a clear August night when literal heat and the clearness of the sky are at their zeniths. Metaphorically, such a moon represents the emotional intensity the poet feels for his beloved. As an image, it is indicative of the intellectual passion the poet experiences, not in the heat of the moment, but in the heat of his life.

The poem is written in the first person, both singular and plural. The use of “we” is not as a plural voice; rather, “we” is undoubtedly intended as a way to personalize the experience and to involve the poem’s readers. Warren uses the second-person “you” in three instances. He does so not to suggest that he is addressing a second person, even the lover or the reader, but to talk to some component of his self.

The first stanza of the poem contains two metaphorical images: The August moon of the title is “Gold like a half-slice of orange/ Fished from a stiff Old-Fashioned.” Similarly, it is “like a real brass button” on “an expensive seagoing blue blazer.” The shining moon is the focus of all that it is near simply because of its overwhelming powers.

The third stanza is one of three in the poem to be emphasized by being set apart in a singular line. This line indicates the topic of the poem in the form of a question that the poet will answer as he proceeds: “What kind of world is this we walk in?” The preceding stanza had aroused the question through showing the poet’s recognition of the stars surrounding the August moon, themselves contained in an “Eczema of glory.”

In the next stanza, Warren gives the first part of this answer, though indirectly; it is the kind of world where people must die. He writes that “It makes no sense except/the body’s old business” and lists three occurrences that typify death: “Your father’s cancer, or/ Mother’s stroke, or/ The cat’s fifth pregnancy.”

The plural “we” is used in the following two stanzas as the poet continues to answer the question of the poem. The reader is instructed that “we” walk in a world where communication is possible, although it is a “darkling susurration” that must be deciphered. It is also a world where time, though never directly mentioned, is counted by children at birthday parties.

In the eighth stanza, Warren tells the reader exactly the answer to this earlier question: “the point” is that one lives in a world in which the “counting of years” goes on for adults as well as for children, although in different ways. Toward the end of the poem, the poet compares life to a “pale path between treetops.” Finally, he instructs the reader that the world is one in which travelers on life’s journey should communicate by holding hands and not talking at all.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

As is typical of Warren’s poetry, imagery and metaphor dominate; the poem is devoid of standard poetic devices such as rhyme or alliteration. He conveys his message through a series of images, many of which are embedded in metaphors. The August moon itself is used to establish a mood of contemplation and a setting of quiet emotional intensity. The moon is set in the universe among the stars in the same way that the poet as an individual, his lover as another separate individual, and readers as yet another entity of individuals are set in the world to walk their respective paths through pale moonlight among darkened treetops. It is hopeless, the poet realizes, for these stars to attempt communication; so it is with all humans who “walk down the woods-lane.” The stars attempt no communication, and neither should the individuals who are the “we” of the poem; the difference is that the individuals of this “we” can hold hands.

Initially, the moon is compared to the gold “half-slice of orange” in a drink and to a brass button on a blue blazer. It is a part of the physical universe, the most prominent, visible feature in the heavens (the “Eczema of glory”); yet it is entirely personalized in something so common, even mundane, as a button. The moon provides the setting both for the universe and for the people on earth who walk under it; the moon itself is set in the universe in time “By the tick of the watch.” Children most successfully escape this concern with time. Adults cannot do so, for they are thrust into its reality “At random, like/ A half-wit pulling both triggers/ Of a ten-gauge with no target, then/ Wondering what made the noise.”

Two other images are mysteriously embedded in questions in separate short stanzas near the end of the poem. The first of these is “Do you hear the great owl in distance?” Animals perhaps know the significance of the August moon and would attempt their own forms of communication. If the poet and his cotraveler(s) can hear the owl, they, too, can achieve a similar understanding. Then the poet asks, “Do you remember a childhood prayer—/ A hand on your head?” This particular childhood prayer would be one prayed by another—by the adult who has, in the Protestant style of Warren’s own youth, placed hands of anointment or ordination upon a child’s head. Again, the impetus for such action is the communication of something important about the order and nature of a universal truth.

The last two metaphors are simple, even simplistic: “The track of white gravel leads forward into darkness.” Life is, for those who would walk a gravel road, unpaved, yet white. It leads into darkness, the totality of which the travelers are spared only because of the light shed from the August moon. The darkness is and will remain all-encompassing, so the travelers are told to hold hands, walk on, and “speak not a word.” Nothing that could be said is of importance, for only the moon will control the journey.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.

Bohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Clark, William Bedford, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.

Grimshaw, James A. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Madden, David, ed. The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Ruppersburg, Hugh. Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Szczesiul, Anthony. Racial Politics and Robert Penn Warren’s Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Watkins, Floyd C., John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

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