First Confession

by Joseph Charles Kennedy

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The Poem

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“First Confession” is the opening poem in X. J. Kennedy’s first collection of poems, Nude Descending a Staircase. This twenty-four-line lyric depicts the emotions of a young man as he experiences his first confession, a ritual in the Catholic religion. The poem’s placement in the collection is significant, for it serves as Kennedy’s first poetic “confession” and basis of his art.

The poet’s attitude toward traditional form in this poem sets the tone of Kennedy’s entire poetic career, irreverent, impatient with authority, yet obedient to it. Traditional form is clearly evident in the poem’s six quatrains, all of whose lines rhyme and contain a basic four-foot regularity. This ballad structure allows Kennedy to address the restrictions of poetic ritual in a dramatic presentation of a young man’s struggle with religious authority. While the drama of this first confession unfolds, another kind of initiation is taking place as well, that of the poet, who balances the authority of poetic form with a spirited and personal desire for freedom of expression and emotional release. This dual character of the poem enhances the emotional tension arising from the young man’s fear of punishment and his impulse to defy it.

Although the poem’s young speaker is recalling his first confession, the recollection is made immediate and highly dramatic. The speaker’s emotional state is emphatically expressed from the outset: His blood is thudding in his ears as he approaches the confessional booth, knowing that on the other side of the curtain sits the person who will judge him. Aware of the gravity of his guilt, the young man senses that the universe itself hovers close to hear his confession. Inside the booth, he confesses his sins, and their insignificance seems ludicrous at first: a stolen sip of his father’s beer, his withholding a dime from the offering plate, and a small sexual episode with his girlfriend. These minor confessions are immediately followed by a litany of larger sins, however—“sloth pride envy lechery”—whose gravity imbues his sinfulness with that universal importance he feared at the outset.

By the end of the third stanza, his sins have been laid before the priest and, in the next quatrain, his fate is weighed. Appropriately, Kennedy chooses the scales of justice, “Hovering scale-pans,” to represent the young man’s suspended state as he awaits judgment. His sentence is rendered in a quick line in the seventh stanza: “Seven Our Fathers and a Hail,” which he performs at the altar before leaving the church. The poem ends with an emphatic demonstration of his untamed spirit—he sticks his tongue out at the priest—yet he is aware of what this defiance is likely to cost him, the continued close scrutiny by authority in the form of the Holy Ghost hovering over him. The poem’s emotional intensity peaks in the final line, when the young man acknowledges that he shall continue to pay for his defiance, and the tension is relieved by readers’ sympathy for him.

Forms and Devices

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The poem’s language and structures are well suited to the emotional state of a young man facing the ordeal of confession. The lines are short, each having four stresses, and most of the words in the poem are single-syllable. Twenty-one of the poem’s twenty-four lines end on a word of one syllable, and all of the rhymes are stressed—that is, all are masculine rhymes. These structural features suggest fleeting impressions, impatience, rapid movement, even hurried breath. Sometimes, too, vividly expressive language, such as scuffing steps and a slat shooting back, contrasts with...

(This entire section contains 452 words.)

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language that conveys an ironically indistinct formality, such as “The robed repositor of truth.”

Sound, too, plays a major role in the poem. Both consonance and assonance are used liberally to convey the young man’s agitation, as in the opening lines: “Blood thudded in my ears. I scuffed,/ Steps stubborn, to the telltale booth.” The repeated vowel sounds in “blood,” “thudded,” “scuffed” and, in the second line, “stubborn” mimic the thumping of the young man’s heartbeat; the resistant shuffle of his feet is echoed in the alliteration of “scuffed,” “steps,” and “stubborn.” Even the word “telltale” suggests that the young man may be somewhat tongue-tied before his confessor.

Although the lines are relatively and uniformly short, Kennedy varies the length of his sentences to express dramatic shifts. In the confessional booth, the young man’s abrupt confrontation with Church authority is described abruptly: “The slat shot back.” This sharp report is followed by a sentence that runs through seven and a half lines, the unbroken flow suggesting the outpouring of the young man’s sins.

This structural feature, contrasting long and short lines, reflects a similar contrast in the poem’s overall meaning, in which both the physical universe and Church authority stand in ironic contrast to the insignificance of the young man’s sins and his common humanity. These realms, the universal, religious, and the human, are constantly played off against one another. In the third stanza, for example, the list of mortal sins—“sloth pride envy lechery”—is contrasted to the young man’s withholding a dime from a charity box. He confesses that he used the dime to bribe his girl “to pee/ That I might spy her instruments.” The word “instruments” in this line refers to the formal documents of Church business, and the phrase “spy her instruments” refers both to astronomical observation of the heavens and to the young man’s very human desire to catch a glimpse of a more human realm. Those three words, “spy her instruments,” fuse into a single phrase the authority of the Church, the physical universe, and the human realm of the young man.