The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The One Day is a book-length poem of sixty-three pages divided into three major sections: “Shrubs Burnt Away,” “Four Classic Texts: Prophecy, Pastoral, History, Eclogue,” and “To Build a House.”

Donald Hall bases The One Day on the “house of consciousness”—the idea that one mind might express many contradictory voices and different points of view. Its tripartite organization roughly corresponds to French moral essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne’s Essais (1580, 1588, 1595; The Essays, 1603), traditionally held to exhibit three stages of human development: Stoicism giving way to philosophical skepticism and concluding in a moderate Epicureanism. Such an outline, however, fails to account for Hall’s powerful statements about love, preparation for death, building a house as metaphor for living, and the emergence of self-knowledge and social order. Like James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), The One Day explores the thoughts of the poet over the course of a single day. As a poetic sequence, Hall’s work invites comparisons to Robert Lowell’s Notebook 1967-1968 (1969) or John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs (1964).

The poem begins with aphorisms, or concise statements of principles, taken from Montaigne (“Each man bears the entire form of man’s estate”), from Pablo Picasso (“Every human being is a colony”), and most significantly from Abbé Michel de Bourdeille: “There are other voices, within my own skull I daresay. A woman speaks clearly from time to time; I do not know her name.” The first and third sections of The One Day are spoken by a male farmer who “speaks” in roman typeface and a female sculptor who speaks in italics. A general consciousness narrates from an objective point of view. The three voices quote others, and Hall freely intermingles their narratives, speculations, and poetic effusions; sometimes two stories develop simultaneously, conflicting, supporting, and commenting indirectly on each other. Multiplicity and imaginative richness inform the poem from beginning to end, giving the book a dreamlike and intuitive ferocity.

In section 1, “Shrubs Burnt Away,” the reader learns that the male struggles with his middle-aged complacency and looks forward to the only major...

(The entire section is 955 words.)