The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 499 words.)