The Poem

“Happiness” is a short poem in free verse. Its thirty-one lines are arranged in five symmetrical stanzas containing four, eight, seven, eight, and four lines respectively. The last is a quasi stanza, emanating from a dropped line in the previous stanza. Dramatic intensity builds and then subsides; the central stanza is the keystone, carrying the poem’s rhythmic and thematic weight. The lines of the first and last stanzas are similar in length and meter, with three or four stresses per line. The three middle stanzas are more irregular, containing lines with five stresses and ending on shortened lines. The final words of the middle stanzas—“alone,” “despair,” and “night”—precede an emptiness both visual and aural.

The poem is meditative. The “you” of the poem addresses both the general audience and the individual reader. As the poem progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that the “you” also includes the speaker and that the poem is born of the speaker’s suffering. The first two stanzas introduce the two driving forces of the poem: parable and paradox. The parable of the prodigal son, as related in the New Testament, tells of a young man who squanders his inheritance in another country. Contrite and destitute, he returns to his father, seeking forgiveness and shelter. The father not only forgives the son but also honors him with finery and a feast. The parable of the prodigal son is presented in the poem virtually intact,...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Forms and Devices

All of the poem’s structural elements—rhythm and meter, grammar and syntax, sound and image—serve and preserve its larger themes by a fine manipulation of contrasts and ambiguities. The dactylic waltz rhythm initiated by the title continues throughout, interspersed with hard-hitting iambs that ground the poem and echo a heartbeat heard in solitude. The silences speak as well: The foreshortened last lines of the three middle stanzas and the spaces that follow them are the formal equivalent of existential isolation.

The poem rides on marvelous extended sentences, the clauses rolling after each other like waves toward a shore. The first, third, and fifth stanzas are each one long sentence. The intervening stanzas, ever graceful, also contain jetties that break up the waves. The speaker’s question, “How can you not forgive?” and the litany of the forgiven stand out sharply against the flowing tide around them. An uneasy ambiguity surfaces on this syntactical sea in the form of negatives imbedded in phrases that first appear positive: “There’s just no accounting for happiness” hints at indiscriminateness; “And how can you not forgive?” begs the question; “an occasion/ you could not imagine” and “you weep . . ./ to know that you were not abandoned” point to a terrible siege of despair. All these statements are found in the first two stanzas. At the extremity of hopelessness, revealed by the juxtaposition of the words “No, happiness” in the pivotal third stanza, help arrives. Contrasting images abound: happiness and weeping, fortune and dust, night and day, losing and finding, solitude and union. Even the prosaic grocery clerk who works the midnight shift is a foil for the prodigal who squanders a fortune.

Perhaps the poem’s best example of structure serving meaning is demonstrated by the recurring images of solitude. Over and over, happiness is given and received in solitude. The uncle comes alone and flies a single-engine plane. Each recipient—from the monk to the wineglass—is named in the singular and, at first glance, so too is the “you” of the poem: “happiness saved its most extreme form/ for you alone.” However, the ambiguity of the pronoun “you”—its function as either singular or plural—intimates a movement away from isolation and toward a fragile commonality.