Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 637 words.)

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