Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“High Windows” is a poem about the nature of freedom. The technology of birth control has granted sexual license to the young couple by freeing them from the inevitable sequence of love-marriage-children, but old “Bonds and gestures” die hard. A generation reared on the restraints of religion envies the young’s relative “paradise.” Deeper than envy, however, is the fear of freedom. Without restraints, society dissolves into anarchy, and the universe becomes meaningless. Such fears are what William Blake called “the mind-forg’d manacles” of self-enslavement. In the course of the poem, the speaker casts off envy and fear to accept the absolute freedom promised by the endless emptiness of “the deep blue air.”

The poem (dated February 12, 1967) takes as its point of departure the free love of the sexual revolution. Old and new views of sex are contrasted in a pair of images: the combine versus the slide. The old view of sex has been “pushed to one side/ Like an outdated combine harvester.” It suggests something mechanical, useful, and economically profitable, and it carries the symbolic baggage of a moralistic grim reaper: Ye shall reap what wild oats ye sow. The new view re-forms the old metal into a smooth playground slide, down which the young are going “To happiness, endlessly.” The mechanical social duties of sex have been replaced by the free play of the pleasure principle.

With the obsolescence of social bonds, the power of the church, the chief agent of restraint, is lessened. The priests, too, will go down the long slide, like “free bloody birds,” but not to happiness. In the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, they will be “condemned to be free.” They will...

(The entire section is 716 words.)