“The Groundhog” is a poem about death. More specifically, its theme may be put best as a question: What does the knowledge of death do to a human being, the only creature blessed and cursed with consciousness? This theme is as ancient as poetry and as persistent as human thought.
As noted above, Eberhart explores and traces the intricate relationship of mortality and awareness, but he does not resolve it. The completed processes of the poem form a neat synopsis—summers whirl, hearts wither, men think—but such a synopsis is only an invitation to further speculation. Such speculation is a recurrent theme in Eberhart’s work. In his first book, the long autobiographical poem A Bravery of Earth (1930), the poet explicitly describes three levels of “awareness,” linking them with “mortality,” “mentality,” and “coming to understand.” Much of his later work, especially “The Groundhog,” represents a deepening and enriching of this powerful theme.
Two great principles animate “The Groundhog”: the grand mortal energy of nature, and the smaller but equally recurrent energy of human thought. The first three sections of the poem present the reader with two sets of facts: the natural process of decay, and the human task of trying to make sense of mortality from within the larger cycle of death and disintegration.
The reader who notices the repetition of “in” during the poem’s last six lines, one long sentence, might come as close as possible to resolving the relationship of death and consciousness. Line 43 presents the last sight of the speaker, “there in the whirling summer,” contained within the larger natural process. Line 46 shows “Alexander in his tent,” the world conqueror at rest before confronting once again the physical action and death that brought him a short-lived empire. This allusion also echoes the physical action of the speaker’s first stage.
Line 47 focuses on the quiet intelligence of “Montaigne in his tower,” contemplating life and death. The French thinker also suggests the speaker’s “intellectual chains” of stage 2, as well as the “geometer” of stage 3. The poem’s last line seems to add a new dimension, spirituality, with “Saint Theresa in her wild lament.” In its way, however, this line recalls and extends the prayer that ends the first section, lines 23 and 24. Whether by means of the speaker’s quiet prayer or the saint’s loud protest, the human being strives to understand the mixed gifts of life and awareness.
Thus the speaker and the reader of “The Groundhog” both achieve a kind of recognition. The dead creature has provided the occasion for recognition. Contemplating dead civilizations and heroic individuals could have done no more. An understanding of death comes only at the end of a complex process of realizing and fusing flesh and spirit, reason and passion, outward and inward nature.