Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“In the Waiting Room” asks eternal questions: Who am I in the world? Where do I fit in? Like a kaleidoscope, life presents fractured levels of existence in a single moment. The individual feels divided and yet united to each level. The experience can be frightening. Poets and philosophers from Socrates to William Butler Yeats, in all religious traditions, have expressed the paradox of the person being at one time individuals and members of a whole society.

The religious overtones of the poem begin in the title; the visible world is often seen as a vestibule or waiting room in which one gradually comes to understand the larger dimensions of one’s dwelling place. While one is in “the waiting room,” one is, in a sense, an exile, away from home, a child among grown-ups.

As children, people begin their understanding with homely, familiar objects—the boots and coats of the people in the dentist’s office on a wintry afternoon. Like Elizabeth in the poem, people feel that they know securely when they exist. “Now” is Worcester, Massachusetts, February, 1918.

Soon the larger world comes in, as one learns about other places and times. Strange and alien events disturb one’s serenity: Those “others” are not like me. The child’s world is invaded by violent scenes—to Elizabeth, a dead man being carried on a pole, women’s breasts exposed. The world begins to swing as her experience of the “far” finds an echo in...

(The entire section is 506 words.)