Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Brief Journey West” is about, in the poet’s own words, man’s transitory life span. Many poets have addressed mutability in their work, specifically the transience of man, and Howard Nemerov is no exception. There are at least two ways, however, in which the poem differs from many on the same theme. The first is in the darkness of its vision; the second is the poet’s outrage.

“The Brief Journey West,” written when Nemerov was twenty-six, indicates what was to be a hallmark of the poet’s work, his pessimism. In this poem focusing on aging and death, man’s lot is portrayed as the anguished Macbeth termed it, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The poem’s tone is one of bitterness and rage; all comes to nothing—all heroics, all heroes. There is no implication of either personal or collective immortality.

What sets this meditative poem apart from other poems on the same subject is the darkness of Nemerov’s vision. The only surcease offered from the relentless process of decay is the oblivion of indifference through sleep, and the bitterness of the poet’s tone suggests that, to the speaker, such a solution is unacceptable. The anger of the speaker suggests that there should be more than aging, death, and oblivion to follow all of man’s efforts. Implicit in the bitter tone is an angry spiritual question: Why?

The unacceptability of death as a fitting end to man’s strivings is emphasized...

(The entire section is 519 words.)