Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

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“On Inhabiting an Orange” is a playfully ironic poem. It uses common terms and concepts of geometry in an attempt to describe human disappointment in its failure to attain goals. While this poem is not very passionate in tone, it does neatly describe the irony of the human failure to recognize limitations (in the metaphor, the inability of straight walkers to see the curves that control their direction and prevent them from making any real progress). Thus the walkers always have high hopes, and, even though they should know better, their minds follow the stars while their feet follow the curve of the earth. The attitude expressed in the poem is of resignation and regret. The realization that the environment is not made for human aspirations has been treated by many other writers and poets. One of the most vocal of these was Stephen Crane, whose poetry and prose on the subject (“The Open Boat” and “A man said to the universe”) is widely known, but Miles’s attitude is less bitter. She presents the problem as universal. The failure of the world to conform to human desires is simply accepted as how things are.

The poem also invites the reader to play with its meanings and explore its implications. To be earthbound means to always walk in circles, to make endless detours away from a goal that is not earthbound. The figure of Donne and his ideal circle lurks in the background, providing a subtle, ironic contrast to the tired and unproductive circles walked in this poem. Other geometrical issues arise: What happens to parallel lines if they are traced on a sphere? What is the poem’s concept of dimensionality? What is angularity if there are no straight lines? What is the true difference between the two-dimensional map and the three-dimensional world?

The image of the earth as an orange is also provocative. An orange is a fruit meant to be eaten, its peel discarded. Is the outside shape of the orange the only factor to be considered in this metaphor? Besides being perishable, the orange is an imperfect sphere, and it sometimes has shades and shadows on its skin that resemble those on a globe. Is this relevant? The simplicity of the poem invites examination of its terms. The pleasure of this poem is in how it engages the reader. The easily grasped and appropriate geometric metaphor attracts the reader’s attention, and then the delight of the intellectual game takes over as the reader attempts to push the comparison into other areas besides those specifically noted. The spareness of the poem contributes to its effect as a puzzle designed to entertain as well as present a well-known perspective on the human situation. In “On Inhabiting an Orange,” Miles provides an extended metaphor not unlike those of the Metaphysical poets but without the difficulty of Donne and the others and with more room for individual interpretation and intellectual play.