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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The theme of change is one of the most interesting aspects of the poem. Ammons presents a world from the point of view of a child who cannot change or grow. The child is seeking a stasis and sameness that is very comforting, but this is only a fantasy. A world without change would be a dead or frozen one, a parody of the real world. It would be, literally, a childish world. Nature must change; change is the law of its being. The human cannot remain a child, and the family cannot be there for solace and sustenance.

Another central theme is the return. The first two returns in the poem lead to dead ends; the one dealing with the eagles clearly is possible and fulfilling. It is a symbol of the workings of nature. One of the eagles returns to what it has abandoned and rejoins the one it has left. The choice of another direction or route need not be final; the past and the present, the original position and the new discovery, can be united.

There remains a question about the final meaning of the poem. Nature clearly is capable of renewing itself. The seasonal growth, decay, death, and rebirth of nature show that. Ammons offers a symbol of two eagles as a way of overcoming the problem of the return; he does not, however, say anything about humans. Humankind differs from nature; a human being’s death cannot be renewed without an afterlife. People leave the children within them behind, and those they love will die and not return. The example of the eagles does not overcome this finality or provide a way out of the dead end.

There is a suggestion of renewal, however, in placing the climactic part of the poem on Easter morning. It is natural to associate the idea of rebirth and renewal with Easter; in addition, the speaker does not seem to be downcast at the end of the poem. The eagles point a way to renewal that is echoed by nature.

One other theme that needs comment is the tradition of the child in literature. William Wordsworth, whose approach is close to but different from that of Ammons, portrays the child as close to nature or God. He sees the growth from child to adult as a beneficial one, since the human being moves from an animal approach to nature to a moral and spiritual one. Ammons gives the child no special characteristics; his child’s only demand is that everything remain the same. This is much closer to the true nature of a child than Wordsworth’s attempt to add spiritual and philosophical significance.