"Memory Green" by Archibald MacLeish, though not one of MacLeish's most famous poems, is highly characteristic of his style and prowess. The poem, published in 1930, contains several of his signatures as a poet: the use of natural imagery to invoke deep questions about human existence, poignant conversational queries, a free verse flow that mimics an internal dialogue, and a bittersweet tone, among others devices. The poem is one point in a longer trajectory, running roughly 150 years from the Romantics, carried forward by the transcendentalists and developed by the modernists, in which poets grappled with what it meant for humanity to be so insignificant, and yet so distinct and full of sensation in the natural milieu.
MacLeish's choice to construct the poem as a series of predictions about the future gives the lines a haunting quality, as if all of our fates are determined. While the reader might be tempted to distance himself from such predictions, MacLeish uses evocative imagery and sensuous descriptions to create a scene of nostalgia, wistfulness and aching beauty. The reader is drawn in to place herself within the universal scene that unfolds. Such powerful work that probed the deepest anxieties and concerns of our human situation gave MacLeish a place amongst other important modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
The poem contains four quatrains, and one final line whose margin is extremely indented. Like many of MacLeish's poems, the last line (which seems to chase the end margin) is both conclusive and open-ended. Readers are left with the notion that we cannot overcome the human condition, or combat the forces of nature and time. And yet, the resounding final question "Ah where?" leaves us in a perpetual state of asking, as if to acknowledge that we will never stop trying to understand our past and our place. Within this paradigm, nature or the "green" is equally painful and sublime, as she both (re)configures us and welcomes us into the cycle of life.