The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

“On Inhabiting an Orange” is a short, low-key poem about the discrepancy between hopes and actuality. It briefly, dryly, and precisely notes that travelers never arrive anywhere near their exalted destinations but rather follow the route defined by the shape of the globe on which they walk. Like other poems in Josephine Miles’s first major collection, Lines at Intersection, “On Inhabiting an Orange” makes use of geometrical imagery. In this poem, Miles makes an extended metaphor of a geometrical puzzle. Miles’s early work is preoccupied with shapes and figures and sometimes plays with multiple meanings of geometrical terms. This approach led some of her early critics to criticize her work for lack of passion; because the emotion in a Miles poem is never on the surface, they claim that her poetry is more interesting than moving. However, this philosophical poem does have feeling that is not expressed directly but is carefully confined within the imagery.

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“On Inhabiting an Orange” takes as its basis the paradox that one cannot walk straight (in a theoretical sense) upon a sphere. The curved surface of the earth disrupts the projected straight line, drawing the walker’s path toward its origin. Because the earth is a sphere, humans “inhabit an orange.” At first glance, the title might suggest living within a sphere, but this is not what is intended. The earth dwellers live on the surface of the orange, forced by its shape to travel paths unimagined by the walker. The poem speaks in the first person plural, using a casual editorial “we” that includes the whole human race: “All our roads go nowhere.” Because humans are on the surface of the sphere, their roads do not, in fact, go anywhere beyond that surface—maps are “curled” like a piece of paper around an orange to make the streets conform to the curved surface. The demands of this geography make all trips intended to go somewhere simply fall back against the roundness. Instead of the “metric advance” people intend and expect from forward motion, their footsteps “lapse into arcs.” The circumstances of gravity and geography prevent advance. Journeys forward toward space cannot be undertaken—the physical conditions simply prohibit their progress: “All our journeys nearing Space/ Skirt it with care,/ Shying at the distances/ Present in air.”

Travelers intend to follow the imaginary lines their minds envision, and they thus set forth “blithely” with the goal of some kind of exalted arrival; they do not learn from their experiences. Although they are “travel-stained and worn,” they remain “Erect and sure,” their attitudes untouched by the reality they experience. They do not ever realize that they cannot follow their hearts out into the distances and that they are constantly forced to make “down the roads of Earth/ Endless detour.” That the lines in their heads do not correspond with their footpaths does not faze or discourage them. The contrast between ideal and real, straight and curved, what is expected and what happens, creates the central irony of the poem.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391

“On Inhabiting an Orange” is a seventeen-line poem with an idiosyncratic form: The second and fourth lines of the first three four-line stanzas are rhymed, while the last stanza has five lines and rhymes abccb. The first and third lines of each stanza are longer, while the second and last lines of each, the rhyming lines, contain only two stressed syllables. There are many trochaic feet (single syllables followed by unstressed syllables); this falling rhythm seems particularly appropriate to the content. The last stanza contains the extra longer line but otherwise follows the pattern.

This is a straightforward poem consisting of an extended metaphor announced in the title and developed throughout the poem. It is similar to the Metaphysical poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and others in the use of the extended metaphor or conceit, although Miles’s conceits are much simpler. Miles, who was greatly influenced by the poetry of Donne, liked her poetry to have the fine-tuned precision that the Metaphysical poets found in the detailed comparison of apparently dissimilar objects and thoughts. Indeed, the comparison in “On Inhabiting an Orange” recalls the drawing compass image that concludes Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” in which the central pole of the woman’s love perfects the path of the speaker, who is joined to her as the two halves of the compass are joined. However, the circle of the inhabitants of the orange is not a happy circle; their deflection from their hoped path is made by circumstance, not love. Even the bumpy figure of the orange contrasts with Donne’s perfect circle.

The rhythms tend to suggest falling short of high hopes or noble goals. The lines tend to curve back like the footsteps of the frustrated travelers who really wish to leave where they are and arrive somewhere else but cannot because their roads go “nowhere.” The short lines seem to fall short, to be pulled back from a high enterprise. The additional line in the last stanza adds a meditative tone and adds to the sense of closure ironically provided by the final deliberately inconclusive image of “endless detour.” Though some critics scoff at the notion of imitative form, the poem may be seen to reflect the progress of someone attempting to travel in a straight line, constantly pulled by gravity away from this goal.

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