The Poem

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

The title “Convalescence” focuses on the recovery from illness and despair. The poem dramatizes the moment of crisis in a man’s perception of himself in which “consciousness” puts into question his earlier life. This awareness seems to threaten the stasis that the speaker has apparently created in his life. It is described as a betrayal of long-established patterns of behavior.

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The speaker seems to be the voice of the poet himself. He is attempting to preserve his integrity against the threats of a “consciousness” that attempts to bring unwelcome change. J. V. Cunningham does not make himself into a heroic figure in his poems but treats himself as rigorously and harshly as he does the negative types he satirizes.

“Convalescence” speaks of a betrayal of a way of life that had earlier been established. “Consciousness,” knowledge of oneself, is not a guide; rather, it betrays the silence and resignation that had earlier been achieved. “Consciousness” betrays the protective “silence” and is described as manifesting itself in the “fever” that has attacked the speaker. Illness brings on awareness that is seen as a threat rather than an insight.

Prior to this betrayal, the speaker had nearly achieved “simplicity,” described as a renunciation that is not an escape from loss but an acknowledgment of it. The language of this simplicity is curiously “to recite as if it were not said” and “to renounce as if one lost instead.” It is the reverse of what the reader might expect “simplicity” to be; simplicity usually suggests a purification of one’s life, but this approach is quite different. It is declamatory in style and acknowledges loss rather than true renunciation.

In the fourth stanza, there is something of a counterattack on the intruding “consciousness” and change. His “unabandoned soul withdrew abhorred.” He retreats from awareness to the sustaining and defensive knowledge that “oblivion was its own reward.” It seems to be a description of a state of despair in which nothing is of value. All that is sought is oblivion and its dubious rewards. There is only silence and oblivion to overcome unwelcome consciousness.

The last couplet beautifully balances the contending forces of the poem. “But pride is life, and I had longed for death/ only in consciousness of indrawn breath.” There is no escape from pride; it is “life,” it is what keeps people motivated. The longing for death is contrasted with the life-giving act of breathing. Life and death are joined as the speaker longed for death at the moment of preserving it in breathing.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

The poem is written in rhyming couplets in which the first line of the couplet runs on and the second is end-stopped. Each couplet, then, becomes an independent stanza, an unusual stanzaic structure. The couplets work out a struggle between two opposing forces that is finally reconciled and balanced in the final couplet. Cunningham is a master of the couplet form, especially the balance and antithesis that couplets seem naturally to use as a structural principle.

There are a few intriguing rhymes in the poem. Cunningham rhymes “infirmity” with “simplicity,” showing the clash of opposites that make up the poem. The last couplet sets “death” against “breath.” Death is longed for at the very moment when life is asserting itself in the act of breathing. The pairing of the two central elements of the poem and the victory of “breath” over “death” is an effective way to resolve the conflicts.

The meter is a generally regular iambic pentameter. The last line, which is the crucial break in the struggle of the poem, does vary the meter in some significant ways. The first foot of the line is trochaic, and the last foot is a spondee, demonstrating how Cunningham varies the meter at the crucial moment in the poem. Clearly, the meter, despite its regularity, is not monotonous but is varied when the meaning changes. There is also an important caesura in the penultimate line that mirrors the movement of the poem. The first part of the line is “but pride is life,” and the second part is a contrasting “and I had longed for death.” The sharp division of the line into two separate parts is a mark of couplet form. It is one of the many ways in which balance and antithesis are maintained.

An important metaphor can be found in the final couplet of the poem. In this couplet, the metaphor “pride is life” makes the crucial reversal that takes the reader from “oblivion” to “life.” Pride is usually seen as a negative quality, but here it is a saving one. It returns the speaker to life and its complexities and difficulties.

The images of the poem are, perhaps, the most significant device. They also are opposing images. A shadowy image of “death” is set against the natural and human image of “breath.” “Silence” and “simplicity” come under attack from the sudden burst of “consciousness.” Yet, when the word “consciousness” is used a second time in the poem, it takes on a different meaning. Now, it is “consciousness of indrawn breath” rather than the earlier and more common meaning of awareness. There are also images of “fever” and “infirmity,” which are a part of the illness that brings on the crisis in the poem.

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