Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600

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The theme of renunciation rings strongly in this poem, balanced with equal strength by the sense of peace and dignity that comes with acceptance and knowledge of what is being renounced, and pleasure in the alternative gains that renunciation of physical pleasures may bring. In the first stanza, for example, the speaker may belittle the possibility of finding much joy in “earthly things”; the listener’s mind, however, in endowing time and place with the “grace” (of attention, esteem, or memory), which mind and imagination can give, will actually create a much richer experience than the meager joys that any mere “thing” can afford. The contrast being drawn between “thing” and “thought” focuses the speaker’s argument. The promise of future serenity emerges through the sentence structure in the description of the speaker’s mind as the peaceful ground of an experience that will happen of itself: “Joy” will spontaneously “spring” from the mind, as “time and place will take” the listener’s thought in an equally spontaneous experience of “grace.”

The second stanza continues the sense of peaceful detachment from struggle, even though the struggle would have brought joy that—in the past, in the listener’s imagination—would have had almost physically painful effects. There is the merest hint of the figure of cupid in the figure of joy that could “pierce you to the heart,” but the clichéd picture remains entirely subordinated to the more inclusive sense of “joy.” Indeed, here the speaker seems to promise that a purer delight may emerge from “shallow speech alone,” for such happiness, the speaker says, “will come,” and without the wrenching pain of erotic passion.

The last two stanzas are the poem’s most complex statement, both rhetorically and grammatically. The powers of the imagination are invoked in the figure of the shell, which can create in the listener’s mind a whole universe physically distant from the material world—the “oceansso far from ocean sundered” that seem to roar within the seashell far removed from the actual ocean.

The interpolated clause in the last two lines of stanza 3 and the first four lines of stanza 4 suggests the creation of alternative worlds by the imagination. The sound is “smothered,” and “long lost,” and the growth and blossoming of the listener’s imaginative gifts takes place in a “troubled peace.” The metaphor here, and its grammatical placement embedded deep within the speaker’s authoritative lecture on the future, suggest something of a poet’s life of the imagination. Louise Bogan was troubled at various times in her life with depression and emotional turmoil, and she underwent psychotherapy to confront her emotional and creative demons. The undersea metaphor of the sound that is both “smothered” and deep, that yet brings forth creations of beauty, suggests the concept of the psyche’s unconscious, buried, as it were, below the ego’s functioning everyday life, but the source of creative and imaginative gifts. The “flowers” in this reading could stand for, among other things, the speaker/listener’s own poems, the spontaneous products of imagination.

The poem’s last two lines complete the sentence by arriving, finally, at the verb and its subject, and sum up the entire poem. The joy that the speaker will no longer find in external things or in fleshly pleasures comes not from the world and what it gives or shows the listener, but from the echo produced by the listener’s own imagination. To renounce the material world, the speaker implies, is to gain the world of the imagination: an echo, perhaps, more than the real thing.