Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

“Homily” is concerned with the continuing challenge to find balance in life in the face of numerous seductions. Instead of the traditional, socially accepted language and subject matter offered in the church tradition, Harrison uses graphic images of temptations and behaviors that create humor on the surface of the piece. Underlying these comedic aspects, however, Harrison suggests the complexity involved in attempting to live a moderate life.

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The poem begins with the relatively easy “rules to live within.” These rules become habits that allow for a structured life. In addition to practicing certain kinds of habitual behavior, the speaker of the poem offers a few of the more obvious rules related to dangerous behavior, variations on the clichés most young people are told as they are growing up. The poem creates humor by employing more distinctive images of those things to avoid, including “blue food and ten-ounce shots/ of whiskey.” The theme of the poem moves from a foundation of the basic principles of practicing positive behavior as an outcome of good habits and avoiding negative behavior by practicing common sense.

As the poem continues to develop, Harrison complicates the theme by introducing choices that are less easily defined and less easy to make. The poem moves to those experiences that are healthy and positive at a certain level but become increasingly dangerous with excess. The poet insists that dangers are not always a result of the kind of choice that has been made; they are sometimes a result of the degree to which one engages in these behaviors. Food is a life-giving necessity at one level and an unhealthy danger if consumed in overabundance. The imagination is a wonderful invention, but fleeing from real experience to a solely imagined life leads to misery. After the right choices are made, one must be on guard against excess to live a balanced life.

The continuing tension between the free will of choices and the fatalism of what happens builds to an extended set of images related to the dangers of love. One of the images warns not to fall in love “with photos of ladies in magazines,” which suggests the harm of investing emotion in appearances. A series of images cautions not to fall in love so intensely as to be swept off one’s feet. Each of the images shows the damage that results from this excess born innocently from the heart. The final stage of development related to this theme issues from the admonition against falling in love “with two at once.” This excess is described with language that shows the individual “spinning” and “whirling,” resulting in disintegration. The loss of self resulting from this experience is enacted repeatedly as the person “rises daily from the dead” only to travel the same circle to his or her own deterioration. The poem ends its series of warnings with this image of annihilation. The reader can then leave the poem in fear, though resolved to avoid these temptations. The satire of the traditional homily is complete.

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