The Poem

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“Imperial Adam” consists of eleven quatrains. The quatrain is a traditional English verse form of four lines with various rhyme schemes. A. D. Hope has chosen to rhyme the first and third lines, then the second and fourth. The lilting rhythm is altogether appropriate for the erotic subject matter, and the poem derives a pervasive sensuality from its voluptuous diction and imagery.

“Imperial Adam” starts out by retelling the story from the second chapter of Genesis in which Eve emerges from Adam’s rib so that Adam will no longer be alone. The poem dwells, however, on what the Old Testament writer fails to record in the blunt statement, “Adam knew Eve,” and it offers a vivid account of the initial sexual encounter enjoyed by the father and mother of humankind. Once extracted from Adam’s rib, Eve sighs and smiles at her male counterpart as she lies on the grass of paradise with “the honey of her flesh” shining in the sunlight and her “place of love” beckoning to him. Understanding what he should do through watching the animals copulate, he takes Eve into his arms and “like the clean beasts, embracing from behind,” begins the joyful work of founding “the breed of men.” He plants his seed in the woman that “Jahweh” (Jehovah) had given him, then watches her breasts ripen and her “belly” swell and grow.

The final stanza records the birth of their child, and it contrasts sharply with what has gone before. Vanished are the eroticism, the paradisaical aura, the bliss. In their place emerges the ugly reality that accompanies loss of innocence: The child who crawls from between Eve’s legs is a pygmy and is named “the first murderer.”

“Imperial Adam” stands as the best of Hope’s series of erotic poems written in the 1950’s. On one level, the poet is celebrating—much in the way earlier English writers such as Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) and John Donne (1572-1631) did—female beauty and sexuality. Hope’s attraction to such poetry and his imitation of it in his own fashion are typical of his art because he is thoroughly schooled in the English tradition and often relies on it as a source.

Had “Imperial Adam” not contained that final, jarring revelation, it could be considered an imaginative re-creation of Adam and Eve’s first sexual encounter and might be placed in the earlier English tradition of erotic poetry. The horror of the final quatrain, however, destroys the sense of pleasure generated by the sensual imagery in the preceding stanzas, and the poem becomes a distinctively modern one.

Forms and Devices

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The main device lending “Imperial Adam” its erotic quality in the first ten stanzas is diction. Loaded phrases such as “naked in the dew,” “brown flanks,” “virile root,” and “spurt of seed” distill Adam’s masculinity. The major part of the poem, however, focuses on Eve, who has skin like honey—even richer in texture than the “golden breasts” of the papaw, a fruit noted for its fleshiness. She lies on the grass like a “plump gourd,” loosens “her sinuous thighs,” and reveals breasts rising “softly.” Even her “place of love,” its dark hairs covered with dew, “winked crisp and fresh.”

Another method Hope employs to imbue the poem with an air of sexual abandon is the use of animal imagery. As Adam and Eve “Began in joy” their sexual union, the animals in the Garden of Eden watch. The elephant is “gravid”—that is, pregnant—or distended and enlarged by pregnancy, which this rare word connotes. The “hind”—a red deer—is calving, the “bitch” breeding, the “she-ape big with young.” As...

(This entire section contains 417 words.)

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Eve lies on the grass after the “lightning stroke” of sexual pleasure, she enjoys the licking of “The teeming lioness”—teeming used in the archaic manner to mean breeding and producing young. Then the exotic vicuña, an animal famous for its fine, silky fleece, “nuzzled” Eve as she slept.

The poet has conjured up a fecund and fruitful place in his narrative, using the only devices he has at his command: words formed into images. They are exactly the right formations to extend and give life to the scant details Genesis provides. It does appear that the writer of “Imperial Adam” took his cue not from Genesis but from another book of the Old Testament, the Song of Solomon, which exults in the female body and sensuality. Biblical imagery and allusions abound in Hope’s poetry.

The abrupt juxtaposition in the final stanza of “Imperial Adam” devastates the mood the poet worked so hard to create, and the question arises in the mind of the reader: Why does Hope seemingly defile the pleasure-filled garden? In the last quatrain, even the soft sounds disappear, and Adam sees Eve’s “water break,” then watches her “quaking muscles” as she gives birth to a monster destined to become a murderer. This sudden switch in mood effectively places side by side beauty and ugliness, light and dark, good and evil, pleasure and pain—in essence, all those contrasting elements that make up the mosaic of human experience.