Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One central fact about the poem seems clear enough: It begins as a lesson for someone else and ends as a question about the self. It is “a word to the wise” that turns back on itself. It is a discourse that demystifies but that then undercuts itself to demystify again.

The advice offered in stanza 1 seems reasonable enough, close as it is to being a set of truisms. Perhaps the obviousness of the direction and its generality are the problem. In any case, what the speaker goes on to advise, in stanzas 2 and 3, offers inadequate means to experience reality. The direct contact of feet on “The dog-nose wetness of earth” translates not into doing and living but into observing the sensuousness and beauty of the earth, its “joys and apprehensions,” from inside an automobile. The windshield becomes a barrier and nature a scene or a painting—a work of art. Art, it would seem, at least this kind of art, is an escape from reality. The death of the cockerel explodes the myth, as another voice, in stanza 4, declares: subjective impressions deceive.

Yet they persist; neither the warning of the smashed cockerel nor the mother’s reasonable advice in stanza 5, in the form of a prayer that hopes futilely to protect, can divert the willful narrator-prophet. In stanza 6, the original voice, turned defiant, abandons art for the more aggressive (perhaps masculine) “marvels” of technology. The second voice returns in the final stanza to suggest the failure of both technology and the ego that glorifies it. Perhaps at this point the two voices merge. The human death may shake the...

(The entire section is 656 words.)