Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

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“Thinking of the Lost World” can register somewhat deceptively upon a first reading, for its impulse seems nostalgic, and nostalgia—that attitude of longing for the past—is always tinged with a certain gloom. The conclusion might tempt readers to deem the whole enterprise an indulgence in despair—unless, that is, they challenge any facile explanation of the “emptiness” and the “nothing” that suddenly prevail in a poem abounding with people, places, and things.

When the speaker recognizes in his own hand the hand of his grandmother, he realizes also that time has wrought a transformation, that the past is resilient and potent as long as he is, but only through the agency of the imagination. Those “gray illegible advertisements” somehow have to be “legible” for the soul to memorize them. For “soul,” one might substitute imagination, and it functions by imposing on the “nothingness” a meaning. The mature poet trades one “emptiness” for another, his present for his past, but he recognizes that all is fraught with meaning and simply awaits the touch of the creative power. That power is his act of faith, his “belief” or his “crystal set” that will allow him a communion with the Lost World. In truth, then, he has lost “nothing,” as one can see in his playful manipulation of that word in the final lines. It is the kind of imaginative and witty wordplay that suggests not only a reconciliation with the past but also a reinvigorated imagination as the means to it.

Jarrell, unknowingly near the end of his career (he died when struck by a car in October, 1965), finds that William Wordsworth’s Romantic axiom is never more true: The child is father to the man. In The Lost World, and particularly in “Thinking of the Lost World,” he returns to the source of his poetic power—the imagination. For the child that power enlivens the dull and ordinary, changing reality into something with an almost magical appeal. For the fifty-year-old poet, it once again makes possible the child’s impulse, that urge to transform the world and, in the process, one’s own life. The protagonist effects a compromise with the cold facts of aging and impending death by convincing himself that nothing is ever lost, that his “thinking” can bestow a substance and reality on the past by making it the occasion of poetry—“the nothing for which there’s no reward.”