Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

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The figure of the black angel, whether specifically meant or as a general reference, is a signal of death. Combined with the ubi sunt theme of the first stanza, one can understand this poem as a contemplation on the passing away of things. The shift from the first stanza to the second stanza, a general query to thoughts of friendship, tells the reader that the poet is contemplating the end of life as he knows it.

In the third stanza, it could be the friendships mentioned in the second stanza that are “the past of what was always future”—that is, friendship is based on what came before but is defined by its lasting forward into time. This line also could place those friends, and thus Coulette himself along with them, among those to be lamented by some future ubi sunt. It may be that when others look back upon them, maybe even during their own time, the differences that distinguished them as poets made them as strange as “old streetcars buried at sea”; the experience of being “in the wrong element” may be a kind of death even while they are living.

Further, these lines may also be about poems (which people are “as beautiful as”). It could be that poetry itself, speaking “in tongues,/ Silently, about nothing” is what is so strange, and it is what these friends do that is “what was always future.”

In all these possibilities revolve questions about death: Where are those who are gone? Where will my friends be? Where will I be? Will something about me exist in the future? Even the turnings of the friends in the second stanza pose a similar question: Are the turns—from music to games, from faces to the wall (“turned his face to the wall” is in one sense a paraphrase for suicide), from lies to truth—positive change or progress, or are they merely preludes to the final turn to the face of death?

The refusal in the last line of the third stanza puts off that final turn, but the fourth stanza, acknowledging the inevitability of that final meeting (“Although I shall” meet her eye), attempts to put it off by focusing on the “presence of things present” (the butterfly, the flower, the moon). Then death intrudes again, this time as a simile for the hardship of life: “Flying woefully” (life) is like “closing sweetly” (death). Between these two possibilities—living that is as woeful as death and death that may be as sweet as life—which are always all that is present and in everything that is present, “there is nothing else.”

“Closing sweetly” also carries a sexual overtone that is not implausible when people’s “oceanic longings” and the “woman with the iridescent brow” are considered. This changes the meaning of “I will not meet her eye . . ./ Although I shall” somewhat as well. To read the images this way is also not inconsistent with the classical associations of the poem, as the oblivion of the moment of sexual abandonment has been, from the Renaissance on, linked with the “nothing else” of death.