"The Litany" begins with the speaker calling attention to the poem as "a litany" in the first stanza, repeating the title phrase. The word litany can have two meanings: a series of prayers spoken or sung at a Christian worship service, asking for God's blessing, or a long, repetitious list of items that are usually considered complaints or problems. Both would be appropriate definitions here, since the poem is about "lost things," as noted in the first line.
The speaker finds another way to describe the litany in the second line, as a "canon." There are several definitions of this word, too, but the most relevant ones—which would suggest another term for litany as it is used in the first line—would be a body of religious or artistic works; the most solemn part of the Mass, or Holy Communion; and a list of Catholic saints.
The speaker notes that he has lost possessions, that they have become dispossessed (expelled or ejected) without his consent. He lists the things lost: a photograph, an old address, and a key, perhaps all relating to the same person. The litany then becomes a list of words to memorize or forget. The words could be part of a liturgical prayer or a list of the things lost. He then adds to the list the Latin words "amo amas amat," which is the conjugation of the verb "to love": "I love; you love; he or she loves." The speaker is not sure whether he should memorize or forget these words. The "dead tongue" refers to Latin, which is considered to be a dead language. In the last line, he declares that "the final sentence" of that language "has been spoken."
In this stanza, the speaker moves from a personal focus to a description of landscape, listing different types on which rain falls. The rain falls to the earth indifferently, apathetically. It completes the cycle of life as it rises up again "without our agency" (that is, without our help) to the clouds.
In this stanza, the list becomes the speaker's "prayer to unbelief," to "guttering" candles, and to incense drifting emptily. The prayer is likened to "the smile of a stone Madonna," to "the silent fury of the consecrated wine," and to "a benediction on the death of a young god." All the items in the stanza are found in Christian worship services.
Here the litany becomes a list or a prayer to "earth and ashes," to dust, to fine silt, "a prayer to praise what we become." This wasteland, with its dusty roads and vacant rooms and silt settling "indifferently" on the objects in the rooms, is the backdrop for the scripture that the speaker quotes: "Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return." The cycle of life and death, which in the second stanza was the cycle of rain falling and evaporating, now becomes focused on human death, as the body turns to ashes and dust after going into the grave. This cycle tastes bitter to the speaker.
The first line in this stanza again insists that the poem is a prayer but that it is "inchoate" (unclear or unformed) and "unfinished." For the first time, the speaker identifies the person to whom the poem is addressed. This "you" is loved by the speaker and apparently lost to him. The reference to "lesion" suggests that the memory of this person is like a painful wound. The prayer becomes a "rosary" of words, a series of prayers, like a litany or like the...
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string of beads used to count the prayers recited. But these words "count out / time's illusions." The illusions the speaker refers to are that the "past / existed somewhere" and that it could be "claimed," suggesting that the person that he had loved is gone.
The first line in the final stanza continues the thought from the last. The prayer now becomes "our" litany, which is the poem itself. The speaker apparently shifts from speaking to the one who was lost, the "you," who died, to a different person, whom he calls "mon vieux" (my old one). This new person is a reader and a voyeur, looking in on the speaker's suffering.
In the final lines, the speaker refers back to the cycle of the rain falling to earth and then rising again but finds a more positive way to view it. The water falls down into a gorge and the mist steams upward. This process becomes a "paradox" of rising and falling, life and death. As the mist swirls skyward it becomes luminous—a symbol of "our" life, our litany, our death.