The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Through twelve lines forming three stanzas, the speaker recalls a final meeting between herself and a man, perhaps a lover, someone with whom she had previously had other meetings, implied in the second line, “where we had always met.” The place where the meeting took place, the embankment, is clearly recalled, and she remembers of what the man spoke: summer and the absurd idea of a woman being a poet. In her mind’s eye, she can “still see” the palace and fortress, she can still imagine the air itself, “so miraculous.” The friend, or lover, however, remains anonymous, a suggestion, a reference to summer, an attitude toward women as poets.

The poet remembers setting, mood, feeling, whereas the former acquaintance has faded into a memory of significant details, a voice in spring mentioning summer. The recollection creates an evocative scene in which the natural setting and architecture take on greater clarity than the companion himself, who all but disappears from the poem half way through. It is as if the speaker, hearing him ridicule women poets, turns away to the past, recalling the palace and fortress, symbols of imperial strength, historical continuity, and grandeur. The image of stately buildings diminishes the momentous “absurd.” Whatever pain his ridicule may have caused is thus deflected. Then the poet shifts suddenly in the final stanza to the air, contrasting it with the grand buildings and suggesting her own wafting moods, once majestic then as insubstantial as the air.

As the poem advances, however, the poet’s vision broadens. It rises from the embankment and the threatening river—the Neva—from the acquaintance and his insulting remark, passes through the pomp of regal power, and comes to God, the ultimate authority and giver of life-giving air, everything. The small talk about summer, the sexist remark of one no longer seen—perhaps because of his prejudice—the grand architecture, all are diminished by the “miraculous” gift of God, which is followed, in the concluding two lines, by the poem’s ultimate revelation: In that moment of vision, seeing that the air is God’s gift, the poet received another gift, another mad song. The poem rises to this liberating perception—that her poetic gift mingles with the air itself—which is the medium through which God sends the gift of poetic song.