Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1176
The first stanza of “The City Limits” does not consist of just one unit of language: it starts with a conjunctive phrase, “When you consider,” and finishes that idea in the middle of line 3, starting another phrase, again with the words “when you consider,” before the stanza’s end. By compiling one incomplete thought upon another before coming out with the main grammatical point, the poem goads readers to guess what they are supposed to find out in the end after they have considered all of the things being listed.
In this first stanza, readers are told that the poem’s point will come out after they have considered a phenomenon that is defined as “the radiance.” Radiance can be used to refer to light, and it can also sometimes refer to heat. It is first clearly identified as light in line 3, which says that the radiance is excluded from areas that are “overhung or hidden.” Since the radiance is blocked out by overhangs, readers can assume that it comes from above, like sunlight.
The second phrase submitted for readers’ consideration has been introduced in line 3, but it is fully realized in lines 4 through 5. Here, the poem brings up the image of “birds’ bones.” It mixes sensory images by bringing up the sound of the bones in line 4 and considers how that sound exists within the visual realm of light. The understatement “no awful noise” seems to imply that the beating of birds’ wings does make a sound, and that it is in fact unpleasant, but that it just does not reach the level of “awful.” This is just one way in which the poem shows an acceptance of the harshness of nature. In line 5, there is a contrast drawn between the heights that birds could reach in flight and the fact that they spend their time in the sun low near the earth.
The end of this stanza repeats the phrase that started the poem, “When you consider the radiance.” It changes direction after that one introductory phrase, though. Instead of going on to identify the radiance, as it did in the first line, line 6 brings up a moral judgement, guilt. Ending with the phrase “the guiltiest” draws attention to the concept of guilt, and it calls on readers’ curiosity to find out what guilty thing or things this radiance is examining.
In saying that the “radiance” that shines from above can look into the heart, this poem plays with the idea of mixed metaphors. Before this stanza, the radiance has been used to mean the sun; the heart, however, is not exposed to sunshine. Therefore, readers are forced to recognize a more abstract meaning to the idea of radiance, to know it as something that has access to human emotions, which are, symbolically at least, held within “the weaving heart.” This understanding of human emotions is not the most important thing for the natural world’s radiance; the poem goes on, past the complexity of the human heart to the complexity of a fly.
In line 9, the fly is described but not identified. Readers are introduced to positive elements, such as abundance, illumination, and the cool image of an object glowing blue. Coming after the human heart, these respectful descriptions seem to indicate something that has superior significance, a worldly object that deserves even more consideration than the labyrinth of human emotion.
The break between the third and fourth stanzas serves to make the glowing blue object that has readers. The fourth stanza begins by building this object up even further, saying that it has “goldskeined wings.” The word “skein” is usually used to refer to a coil of thread, indicating the fineness and fragility of a fly’s wings, while the emphasis on their gold color makes the fly sound extremely valuable. This impression is contradicted, of course, when the poem finally gets around to letting readers know that it is a fly being described. The reversal of expectation becomes even clearer in line 11, when the poem contrasts the positive aspects of the fly with its filthy actions, such as swarming onto the guts of dead animals or onto excrement. While the poem does introduce these gruesome aspects of the fly’s life, it generally approves of the fly because, as it points out in line 12, the fly seems to appreciate the things that are made available to it. The poem does show, in stanza 3, that humans have a place in the greater scheme of nature, but it shows in stanza 4 that even the simple functions of a lowly fly are as important as the emotions that some humans find allimportant.
In this stanza, the contrasts that have been alluded to before are presented in a quick list, which pairs opposites together to show that the natural world has room for much diversity. Air is paired with vacuum, which is defined as the absence of air; snow, which is a light, floating object, is paired with shale, which is a dark, heavy rock; soft oceanic squids are coupled with sharp, mountain-dwelling wolves; beautiful and delicate roses are contrasted with an unstoppable and unnoticed moss, lichen. Line 14 finally gets to the poem’s overall point: that the light of the sun, its radiance, shines down upon all things evenly, with no favoritism from the sun. This main idea of universal equality marks the end of the list of phrases that each starts “when you consider,” and the poem’s language finally moves past that repetitive language and, in line 14, completes the phrases that begin with “when,” moving on to what happens “then.”
What happens after all of the considering, according to the poem, is the acceptance of the situations Ammons describes here makes a human a better person. As before, the poem uses the idea of the “heart” in line 15 to stand for all human emotion: saying that it “moves roomier” shows an acknowledgement that human potential is less limited once one accepts the varieties of nature.
In stanza 6, the poem offers three ways in which nature collects its contradictory elements in order to create something more grand than humans expect from it. The phrase “the / leaf does not increase itself above the grass,” in line 16, has symbolic implications: leaves naturally grow toward the sun and, of course, blot out the sun for the grass below, but they do not “increase themselves,” which may be read as the idea that they do not destroy the grass for the sake of their own ego. In line 17, Ammons hints at nature at its worst with the idea of “dark works” within “the deepest cells”; he pairs this frightening mystery, however, with the simple and obvious beauty of a bush growing in the springtime. In the last line, the poem shows the ultimate benefit of this new way of viewing things that it proposes: by seeing all things in their proper perspective in nature, fear of nature’s immensity turns to praise of its complex system, where everything has its place.
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