Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

There are a number of significant themes in “Meditation on a Memoir.” First, the memoir is a common theme for Cunningham. In “To a Student,” he distinguishes memoirs from fiction: “Fiction is fiction: its one theme/ Is its allegiance to its scheme./ Memoir is memoir: there your heart/ Awaits the judgment of your heart.” Fiction is an imaginative creation that is true to its “scheme” or art. Memoirs subordinate art and design to one’s “heart.” Fiction is a classical form, while a memoir is a Romantic form.

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Will is another important theme. Cunningham uses will in the Shakespearean sense: It represents people’s untrammeled desires that must be controlled by reason and conscience. Cunningham wrote a critical essay on a phrase by Hamlet to his mother: “Reason panders wills.” In this example, reason should guide but instead gives license to the will to act. It is clearly an important theme to Cunningham as a Shakespearean scholar and a poet. The average reader may not realize what is at stake with the seemingly innocent first line: “Who knows his will?” Cunningham has a classical perspective on art and morality; the will should be controlled rather than exercised or revealed.

The controlling metaphor of the poem is also directly related to the theme. The poem begins by questioning people’s abilities to know and then reveal their wills and moves to an obliteration of any control by them. They are tossed around at the will of a greater power that they are not even aware of, the “lunar senses” that “compel” their dreams. Cunningham seems to use “senses” in this passage in a very precise way. Once again it is a personification: The lunar force acts out of its own instinctual senses and, therefore, negates the will of humankind. The use of silence in the third stanza is another thematic reversal. Silence is filled with “delight” to hear people break down and reveal their tears. This contrasts to the earlier claim to will and fulfillment. There is none of that now, only frustrated tears that are heard by silence rather than published in the revealing words of memoirs.

Humankind’s dreams and themes also have thematic implications. One’s dreams are not one’s own but are determined and controlled by the “lunar senses.” The themes expected in a memoir are not one’s own but are compelled by an outside force. The end result is a mockery of any pretense to a true memoir. Most of the poems of J. V. Cunningham are very brief, and “Meditation on a Memoir” is a more detailed and expansive poem than Cunningham’s usual epigrams. It is a poem that deals with philosophical as well as aesthetic issues. People’s claims to be transcendent beings who are in control of their destinies or even their concepts of themselves and their wills are undermined, and a memoir is seen as either an illegitimate or impossible form or art.

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