“Last Things” is a forty-seven-line meditation that is divided into four stanzas. Included in William Meredith’s 1970 collection, Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems, “Last Things” is one of the thirteen new poems that make up the opening section of the collection; it is the last poem—the impact poem—of the opening section.
In the eleven-line first stanza, the poet observes a porcupine crossing a road. The porcupine’s movements are described as reminding him of other “relics”: “Possum, armadillo, horseshoe crab.” They seem “arthritic with time.” The porcupine and the other creatures are neither cute nor graceful, and “In all their slowness we see no dignity.” The porcupine is “oblivious,” though, to its standing on the evolutionary chart, and at the end of the stanza “he falls off/ Deliberately and without grace into the ferns.” Meredith moves to a completely new location in the thirteen-line second stanza. He describes the situation of a different type of relic, old cars in a junkyard. The contents and arrangement of the junkyard are detailed. The “old cars” have been “kept for the parts”; there are “Fenders and chassis and the engine blocks.” The rows in the junkyard conjure up the image of “an old orchard” that follows “the contours of the hill.” The cars and their various parts are on display for the purpose of being picked clean to satisfy the needs of still-functioning cars. The last line of the stanza makes it clear what role the functioning cars play: “Cars the same age are parked on the road like cannibals.”
In the fifteen-line third stanza, the poet transports the reader to Africa and focuses on “Statues of soldiers and governors and their queen” that were once erected by the Englishmen who had come to that continent. The statues now lie ignored in a field “where the Africans put them.” Meredith speaks rather generously of the soldiers and governors, who “did their best” and who for the most part were not “plunderers.” Nevertheless, those people and the statues of them that were left behind have been forgotten. The statues have “chipped extremities,” rest “in a chipped regalia,” and “lie at angles of unaccustomed ease.” Only the African lichen confers any “grandeur” on the statues; lichen is a crustlike plant, consisting of fungus and green algae, that grows on rocks. The natural world may have given the statues a certain grandeur, but “men have withheld it.”
The closing eight-line stanza introduces the ancient Greek world and the legend of Prometheus. The poet speaks of “fallen gods” that were chained to a cliff. This allusion refers to Prometheus, who, in Greek mythology, had committed a crime against the gods and therefore was chained to a mountain where a vulture would eat his liver by day; it was restored by night so that the process was never-ending.
Using the mythical story as the foundation of the last stanza, Meredith speaks of“Time” being “without forgiveness.” “Time” also “intermittently” “sends the old, sentimental, hungry/ Vulture compassion to gnaw on the stone/ Vitals of each of us.” No one is exempt from this process. Both old and young must be prepared “for the unthinkable/ Event he foresees for each of us—a reckoning, our own.” The seemingly random subject matter of the previous stanzas is tied together by the reckoning foreseen for all things.
Forms and Devices
William Meredith began his poetic career by writing academic verse. Over the years, he slowly shifted toward a more open poetry that tends to be straightforward and personal. Like several of the other new poems of Earth Walk , “Last Things” flows with conversational ease. Meredith does not completely abandon formal constraints, though; he still capitalizes the first letter of each line, for example, but the line and stanza lengths vary. The balance of “Last Things” stems from the maturity of a poet who has learned to create poignant...
(The entire section is 989 words.)