Themes in Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish
The poem is about the art of poetry. The theme of the poem is that a poem should be captivating in the same way as how a painting or a sculpture captivates its viewers. It should have stunning imagery. It should not convey obvious meaning and it does not have to explain itself. Poetry is not about meaning but about being. Reading poetry is about the experience and not about the content.
Using metaphors in the poem, the poet has explained how a poem should be and should not be. In line 1-2, he says poem should be like a “globed fruit”, that is to imply how we can feel the fruit by touch or smell, poem should make us feel the same, it should be conspicuous and it should not shout out the meaning. Old medallions here refer to our past and “dumb” refers to being mute or silent. By referring to “old medallions”, the speaker wants to say that the poem should be silent like an old medallion. Old medallion also tells about the timelessness of the poem.
“Silent as the sleeve-worn stone Of casement ledges where the moss has grown” again the poet is saying that the poem should be silent like casement ledge. The casement ledge is all worn out and very old which has not been used for a long time and hence there is moss grown. The poem should be like that casement ledge not consumed by time. It should be natural and effortless.
“Wordless as a flight of birds”, here flight of birds refers to the freedom and beauty. When birds are flying in the sky, they are communicating but are silent at the same time. Similarly the poem should be such that reader should sense the beauty without getting bombarded by words.
“A poem should be motionless in time As the moon climbs” here poet uses the figure of speech of the moon as motionless in time. Even though moon is moving, when we look out in the sky, we do not see moon moving. Poet says that just like a moon, a poem also should be always there. Poem should be universal and not bound by any timeframe. It should last forever.
“Leaving, as the moon releases Twig by twig the night-entangled trees” here the poet is once again using the movement of the moon. As moon moves away from the earth, a poem should also move away from the physical and personal world. The metaphor of “night-entangled trees” again illustrates that the poem should move away from entangles of the physical world.
“For all the history of grief An empty doorway and a maple leaf” This metaphor expresses grief, but the empty doorway may also mean loss of a loved one, or an opportunity, or someone who once stood in this doorway, but is no more there. The poet wants to say that a poem is for the senses and emotions.
Using lot of different metaphors, the poet has expressed that a poem should be silent imagery and a timeless beauty rising above the physical world. Moon metaphor is important for Archibald MacLeish because moon is always there, feels motionless in the sky at the same time moving away from the earth. Its existence is beyond any physical being. It is metaphysical and hence more transformative.