Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982
In the first line of “Perfect Light,” the speaker establishes the second-person address of the poem, talking directly to a “you” and implying that he is looking at a photograph of the person. Though he does not mention a picture specifically in this line, the phrase “There you are” suggests the premise and the rest of the poem confirms it. This opening line also contains the first use of the word “innocence,” which will be used a total of three times and here refers to the innocent appearance of the woman in the photograph.
These two lines further establish the setting, explaining that the woman in the picture is “Sitting among [her] daffodils,” the latter word another one that will appear repeatedly in the poem—five times to be exact. In line 2, the speaker reveals the picture specifically, suggesting that its subject appears “Posed” for a photograph that should be called “ ‘Innocence.’” This second use of the word “innocence,” coming so quickly after the first one, serves to emphasize the speaker’s opinion that the woman is a symbol of purity and childlike naiveté.
The phrase “perfect light” is not only the title of the poem, but also appears two times within the poem. In line 4, it refers to the sunlight or daylight that shines on the face of the woman sitting in the field of flowers. The light is “perfect” for picture taking, and the speaker compares the woman’s facial features to a daffodil. Line 5 contains the second and third uses of the word “daffodil,” which create an ironic twist in the way they are presented with the word “Like.” The first phrase—“Like a daffodil”—simply makes the comparison of physical beauty between the woman and the flower. The second phrase—“Like any one of those daffodils”— initially seems to make the same point, to be a repetition of the simile just used. The line immediately following, however, shows that the speaker has something different in mind.
The comparison in these lines is between the brief length of time that the ephemeral daffodils will exist in the field and the same short amount of time that the woman will have to live among them. These lines foreshadow her sorrowful fate but still reflect the soft tenderness of the speaker’s feelings. Line 7 ends with an introduction of someone or something else in the photograph, something the woman holds in her arms.
The second subject in the picture is the woman’s “new son,” whom she holds “Like a teddy bear” against her. The child is only “a few weeks” old, or a few weeks “into his innocence,” and while the third use of the word “innocence” describes the boy, the woman is still portrayed in her own childlike purity, like a little girl holding a teddy bear. The speaker further glorifies the mother and child by comparing them to the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. Now the woman and her son are not just innocent, but “Holy” as well.
These lines introduce the third person in the photograph, the woman’s “daughter, barely two,” sitting beside her mother and “laughing up” at her. At the end of line 12, the phrase “Like a daffodil” appears to modify the description of the little girl that comes just before it, but not so. The first word in line 13 is “You,” meaning the woman, and this is again the person who is compared to the flower. This time her face is like a daffodil’s when it turns downward, as she leans over to say something to her daughter.
This final line of the first stanza marks a shift in the tone and setting of the poem. Whatever the woman says to her little girl cannot be understood by the speaker, and the camera of course cannot capture it either. The word “lost” is especially significant here in that it describes not only the woman’s fate, but also that of the speaker, their marriage, even their love.
The gentle tone and pastoral imagery of the first stanza is replaced with a despairing voice and war images in the second stanza. In these first three lines, the speaker describes the hill on which the woman is sitting as a “moated fort hill, bigger than [her] house.” A moat is generally constructed to protect a castle from assault, and this image suggests that the woman is in need of protection from something or someone. The “knowledge / Inside the hill” on which she and the children sit refers back to the final lines of the first stanza, in which she bowed her head to speak to her daughter. Whatever her words were, they are now kept secret by the earth that took them in.
The phrase “Failed to reach the picture” refers to the “knowledge” in line 15 and reemphasizes the fact that neither the speaker nor the camera knows what the woman said to her daughter. The speaker personifies time with military imagery, saying it comes toward her “like an infantryman / Returning slowly out of no-man’s-land.” The location of noman’s land is significant because it means the land between two warring parties, suggesting that the woman is caught up in the middle of her own private war, though what its cause is or who the armies are is not revealed.
The phrases “Bowed under something” and “never reached you” refer back to the woman’s “next moment” in line 18. The notion that her future “never reached” her parallels the previous idea that the knowledge of her words “Failed to reach” or to be captured in the photograph. The final line of the poem again foretells the woman’s fate in saying that her next moment “Simply melted into the perfect light.” The phrase “perfect light” suggests something darker, something far from perfect.
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