Themes and Meanings

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“For a Freshman Reader” offers a warning that political and social upheavals recur. The twentieth century is replete with nightmarish histories. The poem suggests that everyone must understand that no one is immune to the possibility of the return or the arising of authoritarian regimes. Certainly, this is the primary concern of the poet Enzensberger, and it is also Justice’s concern here. By adopting Enzensberger’s poetic stance, Justice positions the reader to recognize a particular history, Nazi Germany, and to consider the possibility that such conditions could occur again. The speaker says to remember that “numbers [will be] stamped on the chest/ Of anyone who says No.” The poem also suggests George Santayana’s warning that history repeats itself for those who are unaware is an issue anyone embarking on a program of study—to read in a freshman reader, to begin college, to commence an intellectual life—should know. By knowing this, the reader or the “you” will have the power to confront authority.

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The poem was written in the mid-1960’s and reflects that political period. It is important to read “For a Freshman Reader” in its original relationship to the poems preceding and following it in Night Light, for questions of political and social action, change, and vision were ever present. “Memo from the Desk of X” critically parodies bureaucratic language which soullessly passes judgment: “I therefore must recommend,” the speaker concludes, “Though not without some regret,/ The extinction of poems.” Immediately following “For a Freshman Reader” is the poem “To the Hawks,” which has as its epigram and ironic dedication “McNamara, Rusk, Bundy,” who were involved with the escalation of the Vietnam War and proliferation of nuclear weapons. The poem sounds an alarm and a farewell—like William Blake’s poetry—to innocence.

“For a Freshman Reader” works to establish the poet’s uneasiness with the political conditions shared with these other poems. None of the poems is declamatory or sensational but works through the integrity of the language and the voice of each poem’s speaker. A closer examination of the poem reveals that the poem’s political and historical concerns point to a sensibility that is captive. The poem’s voice verges on fatigue; it is the voice of experience and witness, yet also one that has recognized thoroughly the failures of this century. As in the work of W. H. Auden, also an ironist and political poet, there is a minor affirmation in the right measure, in the precision of language. This is not to say, however, that Justice is a “precisionist,” for, as the opening and closing couplets suggest, expression is essential. There is an element of longing or nostalgia in the poem, insofar as the speaker addresses neophytes or the next generation. By the use of sarcasm, the speaker hopes to warn the reader away from political expediency. Despite the reticence of Justice, there is a generosity, for words must be exact and true to be authentically shared.

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