Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701

“I am strongly, strongly persuaded that the entire area of poetry is consciousness,” Duncan has said. Such a statement offers a reliable vantage point from which to consider Duncan’s project as a whole. For beyond rhetoric and incantation, beyond manic insistence, there is a pointed effort to understand the complex give and take of the situation, and there is a genuine striving to grasp, analyze, and discriminate among degrees of involvement, to define the inner tensions and their outcome. There results a clearer picture of the transformations undergone by the original input, or given data, of the remembered dream. What is all this about if not an enhanced state of consciousness?

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Now, viewed from a restricted angle, the theme of the poem is the precarious balance between the mutual attraction of dominance and dependency on the one hand, and, in a less conspicuous manner, between the gradual disenchantment and eventual separation on the other. In the words of Duncan’s biographer, “Already at the time Robert realized that his mother was to embody the other, restrictive and destructive pole of womanhood in his life and work.According to one account, the difficulties began with Robert’s emerging homosexuality” (Ekbert Faas, Young Robert Duncan, 1983).

This speculation supports a sexual reading of the poem that undoubtedly has been on Duncan’s mind. The symbolism generated by such elements of the text as the treading of the mother’s wrist, the bleeding involved, the dreaming within the little hood with many bells, the falling, or such elaborations of these elements as the hooded silence, the muffled dreams, the jangling bells, the tearing with his beak, the curb of his heart, or the still more refined degrees of complication in formulations such as “as if I were her own pride, as if her pride knew no limits” or “it seemed my human soul went down in flames,” and, finally, that climactic talking with himself—in addition to its clusters of associations, the symbolism shows also a progression from the merely descriptive to more oblique formulations and thence to the final solipsism of the speaker-narrator. Underlying all this as a common denominator is the ubiquitous blood imagery, a major presence throughout Duncan’s poetry, both emblem and binder of his constitutive mysticism.

As the “hood” or sheath image might arguably evoke details of both female and male sexual anatomy, so could it suggest—because of the bells attached to it—the kind of protection, seclusion, and even blindness of the artist who needs remoteness and purity so that his or her imagination can freely spin out its alternative vision of reality. Duncan seemed to have such a possibility in view when, at the very end of his explicatory prose piece “A Lammas Tiding,” he pointed out that “there is another curious displacement upward, for the bell which is actually attached to a falcon’s leg by a bewit just above the jess, in the dream becomes a set of bells sewn round the hood, a ringing of sound in the childhood of the poet’s head.”

The punning on “hood” and “childhood” should be read against the eye-injury accident that occurred in Duncan’s early childhood, which put his vision out of focus. That kind of protective ringing in his childhood ears would become a compensatory habit of sound or an inner sense of cadence. A poet’s discanting is based on that, and Duncan was a poet who relied on the musical possibilities of words.

Another startling disclosure of this quotation is that the whole fabric of the poem, with all its details (one of which at least flies in the face of practical reality; that is, in the sport of falconry the bird is used as killer, never as a retriever), has been a dream. The poem’s power and unique attraction are comparable to those of such imagistically related masterpieces as Hopkins’s “The Windhover” and Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

Duncan’s dangerous relationship to his muse, his arduous experimenting to expand the circumference of his domain (an Emersonian and Dickinsonian concern), and his battling against society’s distortions, pressures, or demands may equally challenge one’s appetite for allegorical readings.

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