Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452
After examining the workings of the poem, one can see more fully the significance of the title. The word is not used within the poem, but it frames the whole poem by defining the occasion and suggesting the recovery the speaker makes. Convalescence brings on an unwelcome consciousness that breaks down the barriers of silence and loss. The consciousness of “indrawn breath” overcomes the destructive armor the speaker has built around him. The life force manifests itself as an antidote to the oblivion that was sought.
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The poem at first glance seems very simple. There are no difficult words or elaborate figures of speech, and it is only ten lines long. It is, however, a complex poem. The reader must come to terms with all the overtones of “consciousness” and then work out the special way in which “simplicity” is used. Furthermore, there is nothing less than a struggle between the concepts that Cunningham sets against one another. Cunningham is a precise and a rigorous poet. Each word must be carefully considered and weighed before the full meaning of the poem is revealed.
Consciousness is an important theme in the poem. Consciousness is seen as a sudden awareness that comes on the speaker when he is in a feverish condition. People usually associate “consciousness” with a Romantic concentration on the self. This association was resisted both in this poem and in other pieces by Cunningham. He often used mockery in his poems and criticism to challenge the inflated claims of Romanticism, especially the morbid concentration on the self. “The Man of Feeling,” a poem that was written at about the same time as “Convalescence,” is one of many examples that can be found in The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. Cunningham (1971).
The poem is not a satire, but it does seem to have a mocking tone toward both the forced “simplicity” of the speaker and the workings of “consciousness.” For example, “simplicity” is described in terms of a declamatory reciting and in an acknowledgment of loss; the attempt to achieve “simplicity” at the price of life is seen as pretentious as well as unattainable. “Consciousness” is a much stronger force than “simplicity,” and it is resisted with everything the speaker can marshal against it, but it finally gives way to the simpler and more natural “consciousness of indrawn breath.”
The portrayal of “pride” in the poem curiously has a positive effect on the speaker of the poem. “Pride” is equated with “life”; it is not a destructive but a preserving force that asserts the rightful place of the self against the claims of “oblivion” and “death.” Cunningham does not merely echo traditional concepts; he is also continually testing and challenging them.