I. First Love
Although, like the moon, she was murderously beautiful, in the beginning she seemed like a real human being. She crossed the speaker’s path and he thought she was flesh and blood until he touched her and found stone. Since he did so, he cannot do a thing, because one must be lunatic to touch the moon. When she smiled, it changed him such that he had no more thoughts than the stars when the moon comes out.
II. Human Dignity
The speaker is in such pain at his unrequited love that he longs to call out. He lies under a tree on a bit of stone, but his dignity prevents him from crying out.
III. The Mermaid
The mermaid drags a swimming boy down to be her lover, forgetting, in her happiness, that he will drown.
IV. The Death of the Hare
He passes out the hunt of the hare, and she becomes distracted. He is distraught, and observes the death of the hare.
V. The Empty Cup
When one is crazed with thirst and finds a cup, one is almost afraid to drink, to die of happiness. The speaker finds a cup that is dry and becomes crazy, unable to sleep.
VI. His Memories
The old should be hidden from the rest, so that they will not see aged bodies. Women care now as much for the speaker as they do for the braying of a donkey. Helen once lay in his now wasted arms.
VII. The Friends of his Youth
The speaker’s voice is jagged from laughter, not time, and when the moon is full he laughs. She comes down the lane with a stone wrapped up as if it were a child. She thinks it is a child, and shrieks to it. Peter, who was an important man, thinks he is a peacock and cries. The speaker laughs because one cry is love, and the other pride.
VIII. Summer and Spring
Lovers sat up all night and knew they now shared a soul and fell into one others’ arms to make it whole. Then Peter looked murderous in jealousy, because he had talked with her under that very tree. There was a fight.
IX. The Secrets of the Old
The speaker has old secrets. The moon tells her what she dared not think when the thoughts were too powerful, enough to drown an old lover.
X. His Wildness
The love of Peg, Meg, and Paris are all gone, so he must sail away. If I were alone I would cry like a peacock or sing a stone a lullaby, for that is natural for one who lives only in memory.
XI. From ‘Oedipus at Colonus’
Endure your life and ask for no longer. Aged men should not remember the delights of youth. That memory can divide families, cause death or despair, as wandering beggars know.
The bride is carried through the celebrating street to the groom’s room. I celebrate death. Ancient writers say that never to have lived is best. I say “the second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.”
This elongated poem is enacts the loss of vitality that is its theme (and the theme of many other poems in this collection). The young man begins with wild hope, the form of the poem in a childlike AABACA rhyme scheme (some of the rhymes being loose). Instead of the symmetry of four stanzas, there are but three. This, along with the indication that the love is not quite human, is ominous. "Human Dignity" makes her rejection explicit, and the rhyming verse now seems forced, out of joint with the speaker's feelings. We see that love, even when returned, is no easy task, as the mermaid drowns her lover. After a moment away from the specifics of the speaker's own lover, we return to her in "the death of the hare."
Aging occurs during "The Empty Cup." We know that time has passed because the speaker has repeatedly been denied by his lover (hence the thirst and the empty cup). By "His Memories," the speaker feels inhuman enough to suggest hiding himself from humanity. The speaker takes an unforgiving approach to age, suggesting that the elderly should be locked up.
In the last six sections, the speaker explores the ambivalence of old age. One disadvantage is watching one's friends go mad, but the speaker is still able to laugh (albeit not maliciously) at their expense. Even youthful episodes are made to feel repeated and stale, as we find out that a child's new lover has merely replaced the old, and is going through the same motions under the same tree. The glimmer of hope in this poem is in "The Secrets of the Old," in which no positive secrets are presented, only negative ones. Revelations no longer cause suicide or the sort of intense pain described in "Human Dignity." The best that old age has to offer is a sort of nostalgia and a lessening of the type of pain described earlier in the poem.