Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Mercy” contains a hopeful movement in the quest for uncovering an elementary metaphysics. This vision is founded on small, everyday things, such as an orange, the symbol of mercy and the vehicle of the metaphor for a deeper communication with the sublime. Still, this vision cannot possess the hope it does without first acknowledging the perceived terror humanity creates. While “The Mercy” is not quick to proclaim a resolution to the temporal or the spiritual, Levine forges ahead for as much joy and celebration as he can wrestle from experience.

The key elements of the poem, the ship, the poet’s mother, and the orange, serve simultaneously as symbols and as facts. The ship, despite its title, is the vehicle toward mercy, while the orange embodies mercy, but only if Levine’s mother chooses to peel and eat it. The story of his mother’s journey, then, is the story of the millions of immigrants that came to America at the turn of the twentieth century. In a larger sense, it is the story of humanity striving to come to terms with living in the physical universe. Levine’s willingness to undertake the sometimes oppressive and ungenerous powers of nature and society finally makes tenderness and empathy stand up against disenfranchisement. The poem—its characters and its elements, which readers are reminded exist as historical fact—attempts to defy the conditions of the world and survive with essential serenity.