The Tennis Court Oath

by John Ashbery
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556

“The Tennis Court Oath” is a poem in free verse, its forty-nine lines divided into six stanzas of varying length. The title has a double suggestiveness, only one aspect of which turns out to be relevant to the actual poem. The Tennis Court Oath was a key event of the French Revolution, an event in which the commoners (or Third Estate), having been locked out of a meeting of the Estates General, gathered in a nearby tennis court and vowed there to stand together until the Constitution could be reformed. John Ashbery’s poem in no way retells or even refers to this incident. The title is also that of a famous painting by the French painter Jacques-Louis David, one in which the oath-taking is seen in an extremely heroic light. David never completed the painting, and this irony of heroism combined with incompleteness is very relevant to the methods of this poem, a poem whose first-person speaker remains permanently “incomplete.”

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The key to enjoying this difficult poem is found in its very first line. The phrase “What had you been thinking about” offers perspectives from which to view the many unfinished sentences and narratives that arise and disappear willy-nilly throughout the piece. The phrase asks a question that can never be completely answered, because one person’s thoughts can never be completely transferred to the mind of another; thoughts are unique and finite events. Because it is “thinking” itself that this poem wishes to penetrate, it rightfully proceeds as a stream of consciousness, a flow of partial and only partially comprehensible incidents, images, and assertions.

The first stanza initiates the stream of consciousness with phrases of sinister import, such as “the face studiously bloodied” and “a terrible breath in the way,” whose tones are of paradox and obscurity. Someone is not elected, though he or she “won the race.” There is a fragmentary journey concealed not only by incompleteness but also by literal “fog and drizzle,” and the journey is threatened with failure by a horse’s fatigue. No wonder, then, that the stanza ends, “I worry.” The promptings of hidden danger and violence and of unreached destinations cannot help but conjure a mood of anxiety—the sort of anxiety which, in other circumstances, might well prompt one to ask a friend or lover (the theme of hopeless love surfaces briefly in line 4), “What had you been thinking?”

Through the ensuing stanzas, the poem gathers dizzying momentum, leading the motifs of danger and journey through many variations. In the second stanza, an insect’s head becomes a grotesque mirror that reflects breathing and dancing, while the journey is transformed into both a postal correspondence and a camping trip. Stanzas 3 and 4 bring one to a house in which one is approached (but never reached) by a nameless woman. Then, in the final two stanzas, one is outdoors once again, responding along with “the doctor and Philip” to some indistinct but bloody emergency, perhaps inside the house that had been so briefly entered. In the end, “there [is] no turning back but the end [is] in sight.” The stream of consciousness becomes a dream, part of a fevered illness that is past now. True to its nature, the poem does not conclude but rather disappears through a dark hole, inscrutably “glad” to have made its inscrutable journey.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

Virtually all the elusive but memorable effects of “The Tennis Court Oath” are products of its central technique: its stream-of-consciousness approach. In the modern period, such innovative novelists as James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf employed this technique as a means of probing beneath the social and dramatic façades of their characters in order to illuminate psychological motives and complexities which might otherwise have passed, as do most thoughts, out of existence unremarked. In novels, stream of consciousness usually has a context within the wider frame of setting and plot. In poetry, however, it appears unframed and so challenges the reader with the suddenness of surprise. Thus, Ashbery’s technique has much more in common with the aleatory or “automatic writing” methods of André Breton and other French Surrealist poets of the early twentieth century. Since the poem’s title refers, however ironically, to an incident of French history and was indeed composed during Ashbery’s ten-year residence in Paris, its use of a characteristically French poetic technique seems entirely appropriate.

The principal effect of aleatory poetry is one of disruption. By rejecting conventional expository techniques, by rejecting even the conventions of syntax and grammar, it forces readers to abandon their usual habits of reading and thinking and so to improvise new ways of understanding that will, of necessity, be unique to each individual poem. Every aleatory poem is a category unto itself, and this absolute originality is a primary aim of the technique. Nothing but “The Tennis Court Oath” teaches one to read “The Tennis Court Oath.” It accumulates rather than unfolds, as its fragmentary lines—by not completing their thoughts—trigger new fragments via undisclosed motives of free association and private emotion. Amid these fragments, readers become co-authors of the poem, sorting and combining the fragments according to their own experiences and states of mind. In this way, the poem becomes an event of potentially infinite variety, as opposed to an object to be dutifully comprehended, and this is clearly another aim of the aleatory poet: to win an active instead of a passive readership and so gain a permanent timeliness for the poem.

One may think of “The Tennis Court Oath” as one thinks of a collage. The lines, like newspaper clippings, once removed from an ordinary narrative context, placed alongside other lines similarly removed, and then arranged in an explicitly suprarational sequence, challenge a reader to make the connections which the artist refuses to make on the reader’s behalf. The effect is atmospheric rather than thematic, similar to that of a dream whose emotional atmosphere lingers in the mind long after the incidental details of the dream have faded away. Everything in “The Tennis Court Oath” is a potential metaphor, and each image stands willing to allow any reader to use it as a key to his or her interpretation of the dream that is the reading of the poem.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 129

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Ashbery: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Casper, Robert N. “Interview with John Ashbery.” Jubilat 9 (Fall/Winter, 2004): 44-50.

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Vincent, John. “Reports of Looting and Insane Buggery Behind Altars: John Ashbery’s Queer Poetics.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Summer, 1998): 155-175.

Yau, John. “The Poet as Art Critic.” American Poetry Review 34 (May/June, 2005): 45-50.

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