The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Romans Angry About the Inner World” begins with a question, and the rest of the poem is an attempt to answer this question: “What shall the world do with its children?” It was written during the Vietnam War as one of the blatant antiwar poems Bly collected in The Light Around the Body, but the contemporary conflict is placed in the historical context of ancient Rome, which—once the parallels are understood and the distant past conflated with the present—makes the present terror even more horrific.

The poem is built around a series of parallels between “executives” and “executioners.” At first these terms seem to suggest a contrast, but the reader quickly realizes that Bly intends to associate them with each other: The “executioners” of ancient Rome have become the “executives” of contemporary society. The present-day executives, like their ancient Roman counterparts, are unaware of the “leaping[s] of the body” or of any of the ways that one can “float/ Joyfully” toward the “dark” positive places in the psyche.

The central section of the poem describes the execution of Drusia by the Romans. The Romans believed that Drusia had “seen our mother/ In the other world”—that is, that she was a member of the mystical cult of the Magna Mater, or Great Mother. This cult appeared in very ancient times, and its members were persecuted by the Romans. Members encouraged the development of the...

(The entire section is 520 words.)