The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.”

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...

(The entire section is 556 words.)