The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Equilibrists” consists of fourteen quatrains of end-rhymed couplets, with four of the couplets exhibiting slant rhyme. The title states the condition of the man and woman in the poem. Emotional and philosophical acrobats, they balance opposites: passion and intellect, carnal lust and spiritual purity, heaven and hell, life and death.

The first stanza begins in the third person as the man recalls the physical attractions of the woman. He imagines her “long, white arms,” and “milky skin,” conjuring up an image that blocks his external perceptions; he is “alone in the press of people.” The images hint at courtly love: the man journeying apart from his beloved, worshiping an elevated image of femininity.

In the second stanza, the ambiguities of the couple surface. They kissed, and then abruptly she rejected him—also a courtly love convention. Her body responded to his passion, but her intellect was an “officious tower” that would not permit consummation. In the third stanza, he compares her body to “a white field” where “lilies grew, beseeching him to take.” The destructiveness of physical love is indicated; the purity he desires would be destroyed if he should possess her, yet it is her unspoiled beauty that attracts him. The fourth stanza continues his impressions of her physical beauty; in her eyes, he saw her desire for him, while she continued to deny it aloud. Knowing that her words alone could not prevent...

(The entire section is 548 words.)