Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Any poem that has thirty-three lines divided into three sections and that begins with a man journeying through woods, nearly lost, and ends with the image of a cross must be, at least for an instant, compared with Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1320). Dante’s epic, divided into three parts, with two of those parts divided into thirty-three cantos, begins with Dante lost in a dark forest and ends with a vision of God. Despite the similarities, the comparison is interesting mostly because of the differences between the two works. Tranströmer’s poem is a modern journey through the hell of human violence and evil, but no hope is offered at the end. The cross of the plane’s shadow or the cross in the “cool church vaults” might perhaps serve as a symbol of suffering, but there is certainly no hope of that suffering having any purpose. For Christians, the cross represents both suffering and hope, but Tranströmer’s use of the image seems stripped of nearly all transcendent meaning. In the center of the cross made by the airplane’s shadow lies no savior, but some nameless man “sitting in the field poking at something”; and the cross in the church not only appears to be empty, but also turns into something else, something stripped of value, “a split-second snapshot of something/ moving at tremendous speed.” The camera eye and the speed of technology replace the formerly stable icon of Christianity.

What seems to be offered in the poem to replace the redemptive quality of the cross is the power of the poet’s own imagination. Tranströmer is admired widely and has been translated by a number of poets because of the power in his lyrical voice. He banishes the normal hinges of a poem and creates a fresh vision that benefits from surprising metaphors and innovative transitions. Tranströmer, however, recognizes that all of his verbal pyrotechnics really end up not affecting the world in the least. His image of death’s errands being run by office workers is horrifying; but equally horrifying is the idea that poetry does nothing to stop the devastation. A stunning image might make violence seem “unreal/ for a few moments,” but the perception is false. Tranströmer admits that violence is real, suffering is always present, and poetry, like the speaker in the first section, can enter nature or a sheltered realm, but it also must return eventually to the central facts of life. As W. H. Auden once said, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but Tranströmer might counter this by saying that poetry lifts the reader, for an instant, from the realm of dull logic and violence to the pleasures of images “moving at tremendous speed” and metaphors operating with the logic of dreams.

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