Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

Ransom states the major theme by his choice of title: equilibrium, or balance. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines “equilibrist” as “one who balancesin unnatural positions and hazardous movements.” Intimations of the calm and serenity of balance are replaced by awareness of awkwardness and imminent imbalance; there is implicit threat in this position. The would-be lovers do not display grace and ease, but rather tension and discomfort. Equilibrium is “torture” for them; they are “rigid” and “painful.”

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Ransom has become something of an equilibrist himself in creating this poem. His choice of diction at times seems awkward—words such as “orifice,” “importunate,” “saeculum,” and “infatuate.” Ransom was a disciplined stylist who worked with difficult forms, not sparing himself. Here, form mirrors meaning. He treads precariously in places. It may be a difficult, tortured form, but the result is admirable. This is not a poem of simple choices; the poet refuses to advocate either the romantic vision of pursuing the heart’s passion or the closing off of all feeling and desire through intellect. There is a bitter irony displayed: In attempting to serve honor and deny lust, the lovers lose all. They do not give in to carnal desire, yet the desire remains.

In the first three stanzas Ransom creates a romantic, sensual image: the beautiful woman desired by the man. He uses images of nature, such as doves, lilies, fields, and flowers, which might have been employed by the Romantic poets in an expansive psalm on love and sensual delights. Yet nature abruptly turns against the lovers. The doves fly at the man as words of denial; they clamber awkwardly upon his shoulders.

The images of nature quickly move from the sun-drenched, flower-strewn earth to the coldness of outer space. The lovers are compared to “painful stars” orbiting each other as in a binary system. Such stars can be hazardous to each other, as in the usual pairing of red giant and white dwarf. The red giant can eject a volume of hot matter large enough to rip away part of the white dwarf, exposing its core and hastening its end.

If nature is no refuge, neither is the intellectual posturing of the narrator. His “descanting” is awkwardly executed and furnishes only uncomfortable images. The tone softens in stanzas 13 and 14 as the language returns to images of the earth, although it serves as a “tomb.” The epitaph, stanza 14, again creates a romantic image of the lovers as “perilous and beautiful.” They have passed beyond the choice of heaven or hell, now finding neither acceptable. Clearly they have gained something. In his essay, “Observations on the Understanding of Poetry,” Ransom says that “without the horror we should never focus the beauty; without death there would be no relish for life; without danger, no couragewithout the background of our frequent ignominy, no human dignity and pride.” Through this painful experience, the lovers have gained a moral advantage and a greater understanding of their own limitations.

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