Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Duncan’s poetry is a modern extension of Romantic themes—the love of beauty, the meaning of death, the sacred function of the poet, the role of vision in imagination. In this poem, Duncan explores the historic preoccupation with representing love. His interest in the subject is principally to grasp how this archetype of lovers yearning to possess one another in countless works of poetry, painting, and sculpture contains a deeper truth about the painful divisions lying within human nature. The poet is struck by the fact that the fable of unrequited or sundered passion stretches across the length of Western culture down to his own time. His allusions cite Pindar’s poem from fifth century Greece, Goya’s painting in the eighteenth century, Keats’s ode in the early nineteenth century, Whitman’s lament for Lincoln in the 1860’s, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s love poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Duncan’s view of poetry and the arts is that they express the same truths in a tradition not unlike that of the prophets of the Old Testament, as a heritage of sacred wisdom passed from one mind to another through the ages. Love lies at the heart of sacred wisdom: It expresses the irreconcilable relation between body and soul, divine and mortal beings, between the pure idea and the vagaries of nature, the image in the mind and the erratic powers of the artist to express it. Despair is thus the true voice of art, since vision can never be...

(The entire section is 423 words.)