Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

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In his essay “Leaping up into Political Poetry” (1967) Bly writes, “Americamay become something magnificent and shining, or she may turn, as Rome did, intothe enemy of every nation in the world [that] wants to live its own life.” “That decision,” he says, “has not yet been made.” He adds that “a true political poem is a quarrel with ourselves”; it is “a sudden drive by the poet inward” that attempts to “deepen awareness.”

Just as the whole of “Romans Angry About the Inner World” depends upon the question posed in the first line, the poem’s theme is Bly’s attempt to answer this question. It is not a question to which any explicit answer can be given, and for this reason, before he turns to consider it in terms of contemporary time, Bly first establishes a historical context for it. In terms of ancient Rome the context consists of showing what should not have been done—and thus, by way of contrast, suggesting what might be done now. That Bly chooses his historical example from ancient Rome is important. Readers may be reminded of a number of parallels between ancient Rome and twentieth century America: Rome was a major political power, it was prosperous and powerful, and it maintained what was regarded as an “enlightened” empire. Still, Rome fell. Bly seems to suggest that unless Americans learn from Rome’s example, they may well be doomed to a similar fate. The poem is a warning against the destruction that the people of the United States face unless they change their ways.

But how is such a change possible? “What shall the world do with its children?” Children are the world’s hope for the future. They are innocent. They have not been trained as either “executives” or “executioners.” They are still open to the inner world of the psyche, filled with mystery and illumination. There seems to be a hint of a biblical passage in Bly’s reference to children. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein” (Mark 10:14-15, King James Version). Bly’s image of the “thorn,” combined with the fact that the Romans persecuted Christians, makes it seem as though Bly is developing his theme through a religious thesis, even though he is thinking of it in a universal context.

The “jagged stone/ Flying toward us out of the darkness” at the end of the poem appears to be a harbinger of some imminent destruction about to visit the world and, no doubt, to change it as drastically as the fall of the Roman empire changed the ancient world. The Romans were “angry about the inner world” and sought to suppress it, but one should not be. Rather, people should welcome the inner world as children would. Thereby they may see to their own, and the world’s, salvation.