I Dreamed That in a City Dark as Paris Themes

Louis Simpson

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

If imagination gives the poet power to relive history, it can bring insight. The poem begins with a dark picture of loneliness and abandonment and ends with a realization that something positive can be wrested from the “violence of waking life” that spans human history from the Egyptian dynasties to World War I and beyond. Despite the poem’s focus on war’s violence and the soldier’s lonely isolation, the mood is neither very dark nor despairing. One might even feel that a note of nostalgia runs through some of the descriptions, guns rumbling and “pumping color in the sky.” The soldier’s helmet, “with its vestige of a crest,” is reminiscent of the Great War and its ornate trappings. The cathedrals of Paris “loomed/ In speaking majesty” as the airplanes “chased each other tumbling through the sky.” The poem lacks the bitter indictment of war’s devastation and maiming. Simpson focuses, rather, on sounds that only hint at destruction and on scenes that evoke sadness rather than horror—the two airplanes, for example, are “Forlorn as birds” and, if one can imagine them, are as beautiful in design and color as birds. Even the soldier is compared to a shaggy bear, more cuddly perhaps than ferocious.

When Simpson turns from the scene of war, in the penultimate stanza, to a reflection on the passage of time, the nostalgic undertone continues: “These wars have been so great, they are forgotten/ Like the Egyptian dynasts.” The...

(The entire section is 406 words.)