Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

The poem’s central theme is the tension, most often associated with Puritan ideology, between that which is beautiful, pleasurable, or sensual and that which is moral, ethical, or “good.” The questionable nature of the orchard’s bounty is addressed throughout the poem, from the opening lines in which the pear falls...

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The poem’s central theme is the tension, most often associated with Puritan ideology, between that which is beautiful, pleasurable, or sensual and that which is moral, ethical, or “good.” The questionable nature of the orchard’s bounty is addressed throughout the poem, from the opening lines in which the pear falls through the last stanza, in which the narrator makes an “offering” of the succulent fruit, rather than enjoying it in a more self-indulgent way. Is earthly pleasure inherently immoral? For the actors in “Orchard,” the answer seems to be a qualified “yes.”

The god of the orchard is, presumably, above the kind of corporeal temptation that plagues the narrator. For the bees, “honey-seeking” represents not joy, but gainful activity, rendering it unproblematic for them as well. However, what about the orchard’s human visitors? Certainly the narrator of “Orchard” feels compelled to reject the orchard’s gifts; less certain is whether the poem suggests that readers should follow suit. There is little to suggest that H. D. meant to offer advice; however, the narrator does seem to offer a warning to those who place material loveliness above moral or spiritual goodness: Be careful, cautions the narrator, the beautiful pear blossoms have the power to distract, to enchant, to render one helpless.

The appreciation that the narrator feels upon entering the orchard makes it all the more difficult to steel oneself against the impressiveness of the physical surroundings. Indeed, although the narrator succeeds in avoiding the sinful pleasures of the orchard, ceasing to desire them is another matter. This raises another question: Is it more virtuous to renounce worldly pleasures completely, or does true virtue depend on denying those things that tempt oneself? In this poem, rather than lessening, the temptation of the orchard seems to increase, as evidenced by the thick description of the tempting verdure that occurs in the last stanza. Even while resolving to dedicate the fruit to the god of the orchard, the narrator describes the offerings in appreciative detail, envisioning the wine that might flow from the grapes and the auspicious disrobing of the hazelnuts. Even as it is consecrated, the treasure of the orchard is secretly idolized by the narrator, who can renounce but not completely free herself from its allure. In this case, when the narrator repeats the phrase “I bring you an offering,” the repetition is an essential part of mustering the resolve necessary to complete the sacrifice.

Like many of H. D.’s poems, “Orchard” observes a microcosm more complicated than a casual examination might suggest. It contains a multilayered interplay among the various elements of the poem, allowing readers a polychromatic glimpse of the carefully depicted imagery within. The question of whether one should be suspicious of earthly enjoyments might now appear dated or irrelevant; however, in view of the extent to which Puritan ethics inform modern American Judeo-Christian beliefs, perhaps the question posed by the poem is more topical than it seems. Certainly because it is one of the underpinnings of society’s belief systems, the role that aesthetic pleasure, and the rejection of it, plays in life deserves a thoughtful reexamination.

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