Themes and Meanings

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The poem’s title is problematic. Why should Adam be called “imperial”? The word most often denotes an emperor or the empire itself—for example, an imperial nation, led by the emperor, wields power over scattered colonies. To interpret the poem as a protest against imperialism seems far-fetched, however, considering the time in which it was written and Hope’s own attitude toward colonialism. On the other hand, an obsolete meaning of imperial is “sovereign,” and it could describe someone, emperor or not, who exercises supreme authority. A feminist reading, with this definition in mind, might see Adam as guilty of subjecting and corrupting Eve and Adam as the agent of authority. While such an approach is possible, it too, appears unlikely to be Hope’s intent. Finally, imperial means “outstanding in size or quality.” Perhaps this last definition is the right one to apply in order to approach the poem best.

Adam and Eve are considered in Christian mythology to be the father and mother of the human race, so this rather literal definition of imperial seems appropriate. Once they, in their supposed superiority, give themselves over to animal pleasure, they awaken to the terrible knowledge of evil, thus being reduced from their imperial status to that of ordinary humans. The animals gained no similar awareness as the result of their coupling; to possess such knowledge is the curse of humankind.

The final stanza raises significant questions: Why should their child have “a pygmy face”? What is notable about an undersized face? In addition to delineating physical smallness, when capitalized, pygmy describes African and Asian people four to five feet tall; in Greek mythology, the Pygmies were a tiny race noted for their warlike and barbaric ways. Right or not, the word does carry the connotation of ferocity, barbarism, abnormality, or physical aberration. This meaning comes not only from the mythological source, but also from the early explorers who encountered the real Pygmies during their forays into Africa and Asia. The explorers found these small people distasteful, seeing them as ugly, fierce, and uncivilized. Pygmy also contrasts with the “imperial stature” of Adam—and of Eve by implication.

Because the word pygmy immediately creates revulsion in the reader, it works splendidly as a metaphor that unfolds without effort. The effect is then compounded by the final line: “And the first murderer lay upon the earth.” According to the fourth chapter of Genesis, the eldest son—not a pygmy—of Adam and Eve was called Cain, and he killed his brother Abel out of jealousy. Hope obviously expects his reader to know the rest of the story and to extend its meaning. Cain has evolved into the personification of evil, containing in his person the seed of destruction, of war and enmity, of hostility and rancor among humans. The poem’s conclusion brings to mind the final lines of William Butler Yeats’s (1865-1939) “The Second Coming”: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Hope is obviously an admirer of Yeats, whose “noble, candid speech” he praises in his poem “William Butler Yeats.” Because Hope draws constantly from earlier sources for his inspiration, he may well have had the famous lines from “The Second Coming” in mind when he concluded his own poem. Not consciously imitating, Hope more likely wanted his reader to be aware of the connection. Certainly, when the haunting Yeats lines echo in the background, the conclusion of “Imperial Adam” gains resonance.

What begins, then, as a joyful amplification of Adam and Eve’s first encounter evolves into the history of the human race. In one respect, “Imperial Adam” recounts in an economic and suggestive way the whole story told in Genesis—moving from innocence to awareness, from ignorance to knowledge, from good to evil.

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