The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“For a Freshman Reader” is a poem of twenty-two lines divided into eleven un-rhymed couplets. The poem is exemplary of syllabic structure; each line is precisely seven syllables long. While the syllabic form may seem restrictive, each line achieves the naturalness and fluidity of speech. This poem creates a particular tone and cast to the speech of its narrator. In the first person, the speaker directs comments to those present—listeners, readers, disciples, pupils—as in a dramatic monologue. One does not hear the responses to the poem. The voice, however, is seamless and provides a miniature but complete portrait of the speaker.

The epigram’s reference is to the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger who, writing in the decades immediately after the World War II, rebuked any inward turning as a sign of the conditions that led to the rise of Nazism and the persistence of the underlying prewar conditions after the war. Donald Justice adopts the severe tone of Enzensberger’s poetry to warn of history’s lessons.

The title suggests a proposal for a textbook, course of study, curricula, or anthology to introduce a beginning reader into something beyond literature, as the ominous opening couplet suggests: “Don’t bother with odes, my son./ Timetables are more precise.” This opening couplet establishes an ironic tone that implicitly condemns those who believe in timetables rather than odes or those who put more value in precision...

(The entire section is 521 words.)