Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

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The poet speaks through visions as he reflects on the remnants of a dream that inspired a nation before it dwindled into subdivisions, tennis games, and sailboats. The failure represented by the realtors and tennis players may be attributable in part to a hard reality: Whenever the human spirit is brought to material considerations, its death is assured. Looking back, he sees the pioneers, hears their voices and banjos, and sees their spirit rising to heaven; now he sees it stopped by a great barrier, the Pacific. It appears to be time to surrender the dream and settle into comfort, to acquiesce to the inevitable: decay and death. The great singer of this dream, Walt Whitman, should “Lie back,” for the pioneer voice is quieted. In the silence, one hears the speaker’s “dark preoccupation,” dark because he is reminded of other civilizations, once astonishing, now only names.

The “I” in the first stanza represents the poet’s sense of alienation from his surroundings. He has a specific identity, a “New York face,” but by the end of his grand sweep through history, foreign and domestic, the solitary figure has become the “we” that is possessed of a spirit that “cannot turn or stay.” The poet sees a separation of physical manifestations from the human spirit itself. People, things, places—these objectify the spirit, but they eventually die and are sloughed away, like dead skin. The elevated spirit moves onward, drawn by another dream, another Pacific. Irony tempers the poet’s voice in this final vision without deflating the grand vision entirely, for the Pacific has become a symbol of a physical barrier that stops people, nations, and dreams. Humankind, the poet seems to be saying, will always surge outward, following the lofty dream that spirit forever discovers in its quest for perfection, but as long as it finds physical expression, it will be halted by the great imponderables of reality, such as the Pacific Ocean. Material forms die; the spirit survives.

The final vision seems to revive the poet’s spirit; he rejects the death of spirit while accepting the death of the dream that Whitman celebrated. The poet’s final mood is plaintive. Uplifted by the vision of the “great cloud-wagons” moving outward, he is also aware that “we” are not in them. A twinge of regret and a bit of irony remain: As the pioneers sleep and surrender to the great reality before them (represented by the Rock, Alcatraz Island), the human spirit moves on, a dream itself, a dreamer still. Though elevated by the final vision, the poet is also doubtful. He seems to be asking what good all that pioneer effort is if it comes to this—a dead place that is abandoned finally by a spirit that surges toward another dream coast, which will eventually meet the same fate.