Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

One can see how Kennedy explores the poem as a confession booth in “First Confession” and how his play on sound is an important feature in the way in which he sees the world, a nexus of ritual and authority, of opposition and fusion. Here, Kennedy reaches beyond the individual poem to offer a view of the nature of the poet and art and how both relate to that other spiritual authority, the Church. As the young man is confronted by the imposing authority of his religion, so the poet confronts ritualistic poetic forms, using them to express conflict. In doing so, the poet brings them together and, paradoxically, makes an artistic whole out of opposing realms. If art is a spiritual experience, then the poem unifies human experience despite, or because of, religion.

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The poem’s display of technical skill underscores the idea that art plays a major role in the spiritual life. Poetic technique is inseparable from spiritual expression and fulfillment. Kennedy’s witty handling of language is both a quest and a demonstration. It fulfills his desire to be a poet, free to construct witty poems, but his poetry is also a serious quest for meaning and guidance. He makes and explores at the same time. Poetry makes the two acts inseparable, as religion and humanity are inseparable, when rightly aligned. Kennedy reveals in this poem some ambivalence on this point. On one hand, confession is a voluntary submission to authority, as is writing in a traditional poetic form. On the other hand, the untamed, irreverent part of nature also wants expression. This ambivalence is reflected in the way in which Kennedy uses rhyme. Off-rhymes such as “scuffed/coughed,” “doled/soul,” and “light/priest” mingle with exact rimes—“most/Ghost,” for example—drawing attention to the idea that in this world, as in art, absolute alignment is rare. Humans are imperfect, and so is rhyme. Traditional authority is a framework that allows this kind of meaning to be expressed. Without the ritual, one would have no poetry.

Inasmuch as the young confessor is speaking for Kennedy himself, the poem is saying—and showing—that religious ritual is too rigid, too impersonal, and too narrow in its view or acceptance of human nature. By using a traditional rhyme, meter, and stanzaic pattern to express his view of Church authority, Kennedy suggests that his loyalty lies with secular, not religious, ritual. Poetic authority is more humane, adaptable, and personal than Church ritual. Yet Kennedy knew that it is no easy matter to dismiss Church authority or elude its judgment, and the poem suggests that heavenly authority and human impulse may not be absolutely separate. The image of “the restless dark” suggests an ominous universe surrounding the young man, who is compared to a heavenly body as he burns “Bright as a brimstone” with guilt. The word “brimstone” has biblical overtones, and the image it completes places the young man in the heavens. In the second stanza, another image gives the universe a human form, perhaps that of a monk, who “Bowed down his cratered dome.” By elevating the sinful youth and humanizing an overpowering authority, these images bring the two closer together and render the universe more forgiving, the human less depraved.

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