Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527
“Letter from a Distant Land” is an epistolary poem of 163 lines in three stanzas. The title is derived from a quotation (which Philip Booth borrows as an epigraph) from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854). In this classic of American literature, Thoreau describes his adventure of living at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, between 1845 and 1847.
In a brief passage, Thoreau, speaking to other writers, declares that part of a writer’s work should be a simple account of his or her life, “some such as he would send to his kindred from a distant land.” Booth makes images of Walden and nature central to his poem, and “Letter from a Distant Land” is Booth’s response to Thoreau’s challenge. Booth measures who and where he is in relation to who and what he aspires to be; Thoreau and Walden are his yardsticks.
To understand Booth’s effort, it is necessary to know that in Walden Thoreau sought to discover the nature of true being, the essence of life. By withdrawing from society and living as a recluse, Thoreau lived in harmony with nature. As a result, he came to understand new spiritual truths; he discovered the oneness of creation and its manifold beauty. His message in Walden is that humanity needs to rediscover that core of value and meaning.
The first stanza of “Letter from a Distant Land” is dominated by the image of nature, the pleasant world in which the poet lives and in which he nurtures his spiritual strength. Booth quickly sounds his theme of “living halfway” in this world where it is difficult to feel comfortable and completely at home. At his back is the airfield with its gleaming jets that are a constant reminder of the world on the brink of war. Seeing them and hearing them mitigate his sense of being fully part of nature, where the woods are his “chapel” and where he half confesses and finds “absolution in the wind.”
In the second stanza, the dominant image is of the jet planes that quickly metamorphose into “great sharks with silver fins that foul the ocean air” and prey on man. The jets represent the great destructive power of the modern state. As Booth meditates on them, he remembers his own participation in the “last war” (World War II) as a pilot and concludes that he “owes several debts” in relation to that participation. The remainder of the stanza deals with his efforts to live on and in harmony with the land, to protect nature, and to live by his own hard labor.
The long final stanza of eighty-four lines moves toward a resolution of the conflict facing the poet. The stanza opens with an image of radar and enemies, which the poet contrasts with the imagery of a walk through the woods, “half-way towards dawn.” The lake is still “half Thoreau’s,” although the area has been made into a tourist attraction. The poet meditates on the transformation of Thoreau’s world and ends the poem with an affirmation of hope despite these changes. He declares his love for the land, though he still feels like a stranger in it.
Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339
The form in which Booth expresses these ideas is the epistolary form of poetry, the letter, specifically a letter to a spiritual “kinsman.” Booth adopts iambic pentameter as his primary meter and employs a complex pattern of off-rhyme in tercets (terza rima), rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, ded throughout the poem. This strict pattern accomplishes several objectives. The iambic pattern is that of speech and thus helps establish the sense that the poet is engaging in direct speech. The intricate pattern of rhyme provides for a tight structure of thought and image, but one that is disguised by the use of off-rhyme. The result is a carefully crafted poem, one suitable for delivery to a spiritual master.
Another formal device is the contrast of two sets of images: the mechanical and the natural, the jet planes and the birds and trees. These images are part of the structure of the poem’s three long stanzas, yet they are subsumed under the more pervasive image of “halfway.” Throughout the poem, this reference to halfway takes on new and richer meaning.
The entire poem is based on a sense of a half-realized life, a half-realized sense of purpose. This sense of half-realization is attributable in part to the allusion to Walden. Thoreau’s vision of the complete life is very strict and demanding, and though Booth is attempting to live it, he falls short in his own estimation. Walden or no Walden, however, Booth sees himself at a halfway point with his life.
Where he is is not only a place, it is also a state of mind. Thus, when he describes the place he lives as “halfway between the airfield and your pond,” he not only describes the physical location but also reveals the fact that he has been able to free himself only in part from the concerns of the world, its history, its conflicts, and its stresses. That world is symbolized by the airfield and its jets that play so great a part in the development of the poem.
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