Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

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.

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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 fully captured in language.

The presidential succession in the United States comes into the argument as a representation of the part of society that turns its back on vision. This is the materialistic dross of society, with its refusal to reach for the divine or the ineffable. Love is an ennobling form of despair, an elevated suffering in which the divine order of things is partially revealed.

The poem closes as it opened, with Duncan reading Pindar at his desk, having digressed into his own response to a line misread; it ends with the light of dawn spreading around him at the end of this meditation. The final three lines present the reader with the image of children turning in a circle, Duncan’s metaphor of innocence prior to the divisive knowledge of adults. The dawn reminds him of youth, the beginning of life. The children’s rhythmic turning in a game is both with and against time as they sing songs, uttering truths that will outlive them.

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