Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The tribunals of the title are conducted by powers of the imagination, although Duncan places them in various locations—in the imagination, in the genetic structure, in the dawn of civilization. “For they go about everywhere over the earth,” he writes in “Before the Judgment,” “attendants, daimons not only of men but of earth’s plenitudes,/ ancestral spirits of whatever good we know,” and these spirits, he continues, know the heart’s secrets, inhabit memory, enter conscience, and attend every judgment. He quotes from Hesiod, who says that “they are calledtruly full of awe holy unstaind [sic] by bloodshed/spirits of earth.” Ever the syncretist, Duncan juxtaposes Judaism and pre-Socratic Greek thought: “So there was a covenant made with Good and into its orders I was born.” Duncan is seeking authority, in a historical period when consensus is unattainable, for his condemnation of the proliferating ills, if not evils, to which America is subject. As the corruption reaches into the courts of law and the Congress, into the heart of the presidency, and throughout the community at large, and as greed and exploitation threaten the very survival of the earth itself, there can seem to be no place from which to judge these events, no uncorrupt remove, no viewpoint that is not merely personal and hence trivial. In such a time, how lovely to believe the old stories that Hesiod tells in his Works and Days: that of the young maiden called Justice, daughter of Zeus, who reports all attempted violations upon her person to her father, who straightaway exacts divine retribution—or that of the thirty thousand immortal spirits who keep watch for Zeus over all humanity’s deeds. It is crucial to an understanding of Tribunals, however, and “Before the Judgment” particularly, to realize that for Duncan these are not simply pretty stories one would like to believe, but actualities, given in the species and fostered by culture, of which Hesiod’s texts are at once evidence and inculcators. It is not merely a matter of language: These actualities preceded language and thus guarantee its power. Whether in the mind, in nature, or in the heavens, here they are;...

(The entire section is 899 words.)