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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In its conception, The One Day resembles a sonnet sequence, wherein a poet writes a series of concise poems linked to one another and dealing with a single, unified theme. In addition to the contemporary poetic sequences by Lowell and Berryman, Hall may be looking back to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The House of Life,” a sonnet sequence published in 1881 that explores the poet’s love for his dead wife and records events in their life together.

Donald Hall’s skill with poetic structure is evident in The One Day’s use of free-verse lines varying in length from ten to fourteen syllables, arranged in ten-line stanzas. Sections 1 and 3 have approximately the same number of stanzas, just as the four subheadings of section 2 are equally balanced. Hall says that the surface of the poem should appear smooth, but that—like an enormous electronic device—if one looks behind the smooth exterior, one sees a byzantine array of wires, tubes, and transistors. The organization is so precise that the reader may view each stanza as an independent lyric; however, the book is best appreciated through close attention to its uniform metaphors.

Five metaphors run through the poem, by which Hall illustrates the many pitfalls and conflicts each person must face over a lifetime. First, the dominant metaphor of the house of consciousness and building one’s own home allows Hall to introduce the two main voices. The original title of the book, Building the House of Dying, shows that Hall looked at the work of building as necessary preparation for death; people cannot die without first leaving something of value behind, be it farmhouse or sculpture.

Second, one day in a person’s life becomes a microcosm or mirror of an entire life. During one day, the male and female speakers look back to their past, living their lives over again. Thus Hall develops the concept—which also interested William Wordsworth in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”—that a person constructs reality by the process of thinking and remembering. The poem follows Hall’s thought processes as he seeks to understand his life, although much of the...

(The entire section is 897 words.)