The Poem

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

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“Unconscious,” a poem in free verse, consists of fifty-five lines. The title refers to that category of the mind outside conscious experience; the original French suggests both “unacquainted” and “unconsummated” as well. The poem is inexact in its subject matter: The poetic voice moves in and out of the poem with no consistent pattern, and changing points of reference, broken thoughts, and the absence of punctuation further complicate the reader’s comprehension. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the protagonist of the poem is the narrator, although both reader and narrator share the experience as more than implicit observers. Such lack of clarity lends itself to the dreamlike atmosphere of the text.

The poem begins by reminding readers that the incident about to be described, whether real or imagined, has already occurred. The first ten lines establish a memory of an “odd attempted abduction” of a fourteen-year-old girl standing in an elevator. Line 3 begins the idealization of the girl (“Hey a star and yet it’s still broad daylight”) that continues throughout the poem. Lines 4-10 emphasize the early pubescence of the girl that entices the narrator. Her age is described as “Four more years than fingers,” and her breasts, which the narrator imagines he sees bared, resemble “handkerchiefs drying on a rosebush.” These images are important in establishing the virginal representation of the girl and are contrasted by the reminder that her parents are “firmly” beside her. Lines 11-14 tell of the location of the scene in Paris; it is a place the narrator says he remembers no matter where he is. Line 15 returns to the girl and her predicament. The elevator is stuck between floors. Lines 20-23 describes the array of images occupying the third-floor landing below: “light-colored boards the eel of a hand-rail” and blades of grass painted on the wall that resemble a man’s clothing. In such a state, the girl “compares herself to a feathered jack-in-the-box.” From line 24 onward, the narrator follows the girl’s eyes, greener “than angelica green usually is,” where they meet the eyes of a man, eyes that burn with the yellow flame of boron. Above the landing, he notes her calves under a fine dress from Paris. “That is enough,” readers are told in line 28, “for these two creatures to understand each other.”

Lines 28-48 provide a montage of images as the backdrop to a sexual encounter. The tentativeness of the situation is overcome as “excitement works wonders.” Shadows move around them on the wall, the pendulum of a clock derails, thunderbolts flash from the street, and the girl smiles “between fear and pleasure,” her heart skipping a beat like the first bud of spring exploding on a tree. With one word, readers are reminded in line 40, this dream can be undone. As in the poem’s introduction, line 49 recalls the conclusion. A gunshot sounds and blood leaps down the stairs, but neither is quick enough to stop the assailant. He vanishes in the night, lighting a cigarette. The poem describes him as a handsome man, “Sweeter than the pain of loving and being loved.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

“Unconscious” is a Surrealist poem. As a founder and primary theorist of this movement, André Breton typically created works recognized more for their exemplification of his notions of what art should be than for their intrinsic literary value. To the Surrealist, poetry is a way to access the unconscious mind with the goal of reuniting the conscious and unconscious realms of experience, the world of dreams and the world of reason, to create “absolute reality” or surreality. The Surrealist devices employed in the poem include the shocking juxtaposition of conflicting or contradictory images and the constant shifting of mood and color.

The strongest contradiction, perhaps, is that the poem takes place outside social norms as it describes a sexual encounter between a man and a fourteen-year-old girl. The dominant metaphor of “Unconscious,” that of the elevator resting between the floors, physically draws the mind’s eye of the reader to dichotomize the girl’s predicament as the central theme. She is on her way up to the fourth-floor apartment of her parents, although in line 10 their presence seems more immediate: She exists between her father, “a post firmly set in the shadows,” and the light of her mother. Below, on the third-floor landing, stands the protagonist. However, as the title indicates, this is not a poem in which conscious choices are made. Such tension, derived as much from the shock of the reader as from the text itself, is a Surrealist construction that deceives the reader into drawing a simple conclusion.

The sexual imagery that makes up the poem is bold and abundant. Line 25 tells the reader how the girl’s “calves glisten, they are two dark birds that must be warmer and softer than all the others.” The man’s “boron” eyes burn with excitement. As line 31 focuses on “a parasol being shut,” the phallic image of the closed parasol reveals itself. A rush of adrenalin is illustrated by shadows of charging horses and lightning bolts. In line 39, the girl’s heart skips a beat as “the first bud” leaps from a chestnut tree. Allusions to nature abound in the poem: Line 15 refers to the girl as Euphorbia, a large genus of plants that includes several species used in food and medicine; the man’s eyes burn like the chemical element boron; and the man’s hand moves up her dress, which “rises” like a fuchsia. Although the scene transpires in an elevator, the “two creatures” join in a hut during a tropical storm where “excitement works wonders.” This device serves to temper the shock to the reader’s sensibilities in an effort to convince the reader that the scene is, in fact, quite natural while at the same time reinforcing the notion that what is taking place is, at its core, sexual. However, readers should not be misled: The primary device remains bound to the title. As the poem mixes and matches these images, they are only natural in combination outside the realm of what is rational.