Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

This poem tells of wanting to answer a letter but does not provide the answer to the letter. In that way, it is about wanting to write but knowing that to begin is to cut off the possibility of telling the truth. There are neither “lies” nor “truths” in the letter so long as it remains unanswered, and the speaker knows that once he begins his answer, it will only be what someone else wants to hear. In this way, the poem is about poetry itself. The theme of truth and lies, tentativeness, and the failed attempt to be wholly oneself is very much the poet’s, because the poet is concerned with trying to tell the truth, speaking wholly with his or her own voice. As long as one has never begun to write a poem—or a letter, history, or “true” story—one has never written a false thing. If one never begins, however, then one never communicates at all.

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The repeated images of the cosmos—the sun, the moon, and the zodiac—give an impression of great distance and great silence, yet they move with one another in a great dance. By using them as a symbol for regulated movement, Coulette invokes the image of “the music of the spheres.” This natural harmony is like the “natural language” of the owls who “bell” to each other (with another kind of “music”): They have a communication that is perhaps not so fraught with difficulty as human speech, in which even the distinctions of question and answer are blurred.

By using these two themes together—the inaccuracy and potential falsehood of human communication, and a more instinctive communing represented by nature, the planets and the owls—the poem implies that even when the correspondence of letters is suspended, another kind of correspondence can go on. The speaker is not reading the letter before him, and he has not, by the end of the poem, begun his answer. Yet, in the course of the poem, a form of communication between the writer of the letter and the speaker has taken place.

Because the belling is between the owl and his “mate,” the poem also carries a theme of love. But the “dialogue” of the owls is a happier one than that between the speaker and the writer of the letter: The final exclamation tells us that this is a relationship of submission, that love has led this poet to place pleasing the beloved above everything else, including concerns about telling the truth.

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