Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The phrase “the pit of being” is the first clue to the poem’s theme. Jarrell will return to the word “being” in his description of the knight, which concludes the poem. The poem is progressively about what it means to be human. The last words of the poem, “I am,” are formed from the verb “to be.” By placing such emphasis on these words, Jarrell suggests an existential reading of his poem would be appropriate. Similarly, Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy has led critics to offer existentialist interpretations of William Shakespeare’s tragedy. Jarrell’s career paralleled a time when existentialism was a popular topic for discussion and poetic analysis.

A central point of existentialism is that existence, “being,” precedes the determination of one’s essence. This was true in the atheistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre as well as in the Christian existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard. This view is the opposite of a more traditional Christian position known as Original Sin or, as the Bay Psalm Book of American Puritans expressed it, “In Adam’s fall/ We sinned all.” Original Sin is a subject central to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). In Milton’s view, after the fall of Adam and Eve, essence, in this case sinfulness, forever precedes existence. One is born sinning and sinful; sin defines humanity. The existentialists, however, believed that one’s essence, or being, is the result of a life lived and choices made. An archetypal symbol for a life of choices is the journey, such as one finds in the picture of the knight upon his horse.

Jarrell asks of the knight, “The death of his own flesh, set up outside him;/ The flesh of his own soul, set up outside him—/ Death and the devil, what are these to...

(The entire section is 735 words.)