Themes and Meanings
“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 through the painful, often violent images of burning and brokenness (“shattered,” “cracked”). That life is not as it should be, that it is metaphysically flawed, is further suggested by the biblical allusion to the apple, which led Creation to groan and to Fall.
Although Nemerov’s later work on the same subject expresses some serenity, there is none in “The Brief Journey West.” It has not only an outraged but a hopeless quality. Despite the biblical allusion, there is no redemption, either by God or man. Man is alone; he strives, conquers, only to be conquered by the same sun that he hung (or thought he hung) on the southern wall. The poem’s elegiac quality, resulting from the sonorous tone of its stately rhythms, recalls the Anglo-Saxon bard’s sad ballads, but it has none of the Old English sense of man’s collective solidarity in the midst of a bad fate. There is no sense of brotherhood present among the “black cinders, sitting there,” nor does the poet suggest hope in a kind of collective consolation. There is not even God to rage against; life has a useless, mechanistic quality to which the speaker cannot adjust.
The poem is saved from complete misery by the grandeur of its rhythms and language. No matter how absurd man’s fate, “The Brief Journey West” implies, by its sweeping pictures of man’s triumphs before his inexorable demise, that man has dignity. “The Brief Journey West,” written in Nemerov’s youth, is both an example and a presage of later work in which the speaker questions but receives no answers.