Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Willingly” is a poem about erasure. What can make people feel as if they do not exist? Lack of control? External powers that seem overwhelming? Change? Gallagher’s poem implies that all these things can make a person feel as if life is nothing more than a series of inevitabilities. “Willingly” resonates with truth because it documents the way many people act when their lives take unexpected turns. They withdraw in the same way that the speaker in this poem withdraws: quietly yet tumultuously. Tortured and alone with their pain, these sufferers often see their circumstances as much larger than themselves. The speaker of this poem certainly seems helpless in the presence of the painter whom she elevates into an almost celestial being. The saving grace of this poem, which seems so utterly depressing, is that like most successful poems, it is about the survival of the spirit. “Willingly” manages to transcend the pity that readers seem to be asked to give to the speaker. What is most important is that the creation of this poem, of any poem, is an act of grace in and of itself. Rather than wallow in sorrow, the narrator not only writes of her pain but also shares it with the world. In doing so, she rises above her circumstances and attempts to inspire her readers to do the same.