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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

From first line to last, “Happiness” is disturbing. The metaphor of the prodigal son is immediately unsettling. The biblical prodigal is a rather callow and wayward young man who was driven back to the comforts of home by hunger and hard labor. This is not a very flattering picture of happiness. The speaker’s response—“And how can you not forgive?”—is also problematic. The question simultaneously suggests two possible responses—forgiving without question and choosing not to forgive. Yet the speaker, like the father in the parable, is also a prodigal, lavishing a welcome on wayward happiness: “You make a feast in honor of what/ was lost, and take from its place the finest/ garment.”

The metaphor of the uncle contains an ominous undercurrent as well. On the one hand, this intrepid relative echoes the good shepherd of the New Testament, who braves the wilderness in order to find one lost lamb. On the other hand, the questions lurk: Where has he been until now? What does he want? Why would he go to all this trouble? Is he looking for a share of the inheritance as the speaker dies of despair? Happiness’s “most extreme form” may, after all, be death, release from a body that is weary of life, “the wineglass, weary of holding wine.” The poet Galway Kinnell employs a similar image in “The Striped Snake and the Goldfinch” (Imperfect Thirst, 1994): Wine fills “the upper bell of the glass/ that will hold the last hour we have to live.” Although Kenyon wrote “Happiness” before she knew of the leukemia that killed her at the age of forty-eight, she fought depression all her life—a battle that shadows and deepens her poetry.

In “Happiness,” Kenyon exquisitely describes the human condition. Happiness is neither deserved nor permanent. It is given indiscriminately, not possessed deliberately. At the beginning and the end of happiness there is loss—the loss that recognizes its appearance and the loss that follows its departure. However, those somber brackets lend it...

(The entire section is 504 words.)