Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611

Donald Hall wrote the various sections in The One Day over seventeen years, but it seems to be one continuous, energetic utterance. This unity of mind and purpose drives the book toward its inevitable conclusion: Hall’s statement about ecstatic renewal and the resolution of past conflicts. It is a poem about the cycle of life and about how, in declining years, one attempts evaluations about beginnings and endings. Hall’s most important summary statement comes near the end of the book: “We are one cell perpetually/ dying and being born, led by a single day that presides/ over our passage through the thirty thousand days/ from highchair past work and love to suffering death.”

Hall emphasizes the need to build a house in one’s mind—to come to an understanding of the various conflicting voices and disappointments that life offers. The poem concerns a search for order both within and without. People need to deal with sorrow and suffering on the way to building the shelter of personal acceptance. Building this house of understanding also involves social order, because once one has established shelter, one can relate fully to others and feel that life has meaning, mostly achieved through work. The poem is both spiritual and temporal because Hall discusses the failures of marriage, family, and career. The tone of expansiveness and resolution puts an optimistic ending on this sophisticated, elegant book. The poet has been able to follow the advice of his father, who told him to do only what he wanted to do.

Hall challenges the reader to search personal and social history as he has done to listen to the otherwise silenced voices inside. In order to survive, according to Hall, one most construct a house, a place of solace that gives one the room to interpret and evaluate experience. The metaphor of building necessarily involves human understanding.

People cannot merely shuffle passively through life without attempting to grapple with a fundamental question: For whom did they live their lives? At times, The One Day stretches the reader’s ability to grasp the main point because of the stream-of-consciousness technique and complex allusions to history, literature, and religion. Sometimes Hall is prone to the dropping of names only casually related to his theme; however, his desire for a reevaluation and reordering of American society leaves the reader in a state of awe, knowing that he is absolutely right. Society and individuals must resist entropy, the natural tendency of things to go from a state of organization into decay. Man and woman must each build a house and find satisfying work to which a life is committed.

Looking back through history, one can see how often violence and tyranny caused people to die without ever having a feeling of home or emotional shelter. At ninety years old, when the female speaker goes to the White House to accept a presidential medal for her art, she realizes that this late-won public fame means almost nothing. The real work of building the internal house of self-acceptance and order has already been done.

If people spend adequate time preparing for death, life does not have to be characterized only by fragmentation and melancholia. The male surveys his farm and reflects on taking Communion, looking toward Christ’s ascension as another pattern for the renewal in his life. Hall’s plea is for the living not to allow life to defeat them but to fight back by building a house, making art, working an apple farm, and loving each other with final determination. In the end, the poem celebrates, restores, and prophesies leaving this world in a happy frame of mind.

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