Summary

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240

Lines 1–4
The first section of “Ways to Live” is subtitled “India.” The most common religion in India, Hinduism, holds firm to the belief that all souls are returned to Earth in new bodies after their deaths— the doctrine of “transmigration” or “reincarnation.” The first line of this poem mirrors the circular motion of reincarnation with repetition, using “in” twice (actually, three times, since the sound is part of “India”) and putting “they” and “their” close together. This same effect occurs in the second line with “again and again.” This stanza ends with an optimistic note, of life going from “well” to “better,” with no mention at all of a poorly lived life. This optimism is offered to the reader, since the poem uses the words “you” and “your” to describe this better life.

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Lines 5–8
In the second stanza, the distinction between those who believe in reincarnation and those who do not, between “them” and “you,” is made clearer. “They,” the people from India, are the ones who remember past lives, while Western thinkers, even the ones who were part of those past lives, do not remember them. This leads to the odd situation described in the second stanza: an Indian, looking into the eyes of a Westerner who does not understand reincarnation, can see a scene from another life, “some far-off story.” The Western person will not remember it. Oddly, the scene might involve previous incarnations of both participants. Even though they might be from different parts of the world in this life, the poem is indicating that they were both acquainted in a past life.

Line 8 adds an unusual twist to the image of two people meeting and only one knowing that they have met in a previous life: Stafford adds “some / animal waiting over at the side.” There is no explanation for this detail, but the fact that animals are beyond philosophical systems makes this one an appropriate way of bridging the differences between Eastern and Western philosophies.

Lines 9–12
In the third stanza, Stafford extols the benefits of reincarnation, phrasing it in terms of opportunity to make up for past mistakes. When life happens “just once,” he says, one finds out too late how to avoid things that go wrong. There is a permanence to action that the poem presents as being almost too frightening to think about, making reincarnation seem a much more comforting, preferred system of belief. The rhetorical question at the start of this stanza, in line 9, serves to make readers agree with the narrative point of view, making it seem ridiculous to believe in anything except reincarnation.

Lines 13–14
In the short couplet that ends this section, there are two words emphasized. The first is the word “soft,” which is used to sum up the poem’s depiction of the way reincarnationists view the world, capturing its gentle and forgiving nature. The second most important word is the last word in this section, “India.” Stafford uses this word to refer to the religious theory of reincarnation because it gives the theory a human presence, not a familiar one, but an exotic one, adding an element of mystery and respect that would be missing if he only talked about the abstract concept.

Lines 15–21
The second section of the poem, called “Having It Be Tomorrow,” discusses the movement of the sun across the face of the earth. It starts with sunlight represented as the light of a lantern that precedes day. The poem views the earth from far above, tracking the movement of sunlight as it creeps across the face of the globe, but in lines 18 and 19 it focuses closely enough on worldly matters not only to identify shepherds but to identify their purpose for lighting fires before sunrise, for making their breakfast. Line 20 has an abrupt time shift: whereas this stanza tracks the slowly rising sun for five lines, there is a sudden jolt when the poem announces, “then it’s noon.” After noon, the height of the sun’s climb, Stafford does not view the sun in terms of setting but as starting the process that will lead to the sunrise the next day. This mirrors the optimism of the first stanza, which only presented good and better lives and did not raise any potentially negative aspects.

Lines 22–28
Stafford presents the motion of the sun as a “secret,” because most people fail to think of it in the way that he presents it, as a “new land” that arrives over and over again every time a new day begins. For those who look at it this way, the poem promises a continuously new perspective, described here with the “welcome of children” that can be felt constantly in the heart. In the last half of this stanza, he contrasts those who have this ever-renewing perspective with those who lack it. Those people are burdened with negativity—they shake their heads—and age takes its toll on them, turning their hair gray. Although there is opposition between the two ways of viewing things, Stafford does not present it as a bitter contest. The side that he advocates as being the correct view, the one that is always renewed, sees the bitterness of the other side and laughs.

Lines 29–38
The third section of the poem is called “Being Nice and Old.” It begins by mentioning a time when old people can look back over their lives. The phrase “after their jobs are done” generally means retirement, in a culture that looks at a person in terms of employment, but the poem implies that it means something more general, referring not just to paying jobs but to responsibilities and personal duties. The previous two stanzas focused, first of all, on making clear distinctions between Westerners and Easterners, and then on the distinction between optimists about the future and those who see no reason for optimism. This stanza has a central distinction between friends and “people you don’t like.” The friends, lines 32–33 explain, will be lit by memories of “all that was so dizzying when it happened.” The poem does not advise bitterness toward enemies, explaining that they will suffer by becoming older and that one can eventually just ignore them until they fall away from notice (“drop off the edge of the world”).

Lines 39–50
“Good Ways to Live” is the fourth and final section of the poem. It is a twelve-line stanza that shows the author’s awareness and acceptance of his impending death. Nature is presented as a continuum of life. The trees and grass and clouds are moved by the wind. Birds touch the sky, which is seen as a continuous fabric that reaches down to the ground, so that humans on the ground can feel the effect of their flapping. For a short while, in lines 46–48, the poem hints that the life force that runs through all of these things might be dark and sinister: it exists under ground and reaches out to pull people to their deaths. The last line, though, brings the focus of the poem back to the discussion of reincarnation at the beginning. Death is presented as a release that puts the human spirit back into the same atmosphere that “Good Ways to Live” presents as being alive, implying that the spirit will live again in the things of nature. The use of the word “halo” in line 50 hints at a beautification of the spirit as it becomes angelic in death.

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Themes