Study Guide

A Blessing Themes

By James Wright

  • Man and the Natural World

    Some people just can't get enough of the Great Outdoors. But even if you're not a nature buff, you probably enjoy a pleasant stroll on a sunny day. Recent research confirms the therapeutic effects of spending time in nature. But nature isn't all sweetness and light; sometimes it's downright scary (just ask Captain Ahab). For poets, the relationship between humans and nature is a source of endless fascination. James Wright put it this way: "Oh, how I would love to be a chickadee! But I can't be a chickadee. All I can be is what I am […] so I'm a nature poet who writes about human beings in nature." In "A Blessing," Wright's speaker communes with ponies, instead of birds, but the same fascination and mystery emerges.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Would you describe yourself as more of an "indoor person" or "outdoor person"? Why? Do you think the speaker in "A Blessing" normally spends a lot of time in nature? Why or why not?
    2. Describe one way you used your imagination when you played outside as a child. (For example, did you ever pretend to be an animal? Did you pretend that shiny rocks were precious jewels? Did you have a "fort" behind a bush or launch a leaf "boat" in a puddle?) Do you think this kind of playful interaction with nature is similar to the speaker's personification of twilight in "A Blessing"? Why or why not?
    3. Why do you think so many people love their pets and even consider them family members? Do you think that spending time with animals can offer benefits that spending time with other people cannot? Why? Do you think the speaker in "A Blessing" benefited from interacting with the Indian ponies? What parts of the poem give you that idea?

    Chew on This

    The great outdoors are really… great. "A Blessing" suggests that spending time in nature can make people happier by expanding their awareness and helping them feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.

    On second thought, maybe those outdoors aren't all they're cracked up to be. "A Blessing" suggests that the human quest to find emotional fulfillment in the world of nature is doomed to disappointment; industrial society and our own analytical minds prevent us from fully appreciating the gifts of the natural world.

  • Isolation

    "It's not easy being green." Even if you're not a frog like Kermit, there have probably been times when you felt like one. The loneliness that comes from feeling left out is one of life's hardest emotions. As a teenager, James Wright suffered a mental breakdown and missed an entire year of high school. Though he eventually found success and happiness, he struggled with bouts of mental illness throughout his adult life. So it's not surprising to discover themes of isolation in his poetry. In "A Blessing," Wright acknowledges the reality of "loneliness" but doesn't dwell on it, focusing instead of the moments of grace that release us from the solitary confinement of living inside our own heads.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Extroverts crave plenty of social interaction, while introverts often find solitude refreshing. Do you think you're more of an extrovert or an introvert? Why? Think of a time when you felt lonely. What helped you feel better? How does that compare to the speaker's experience in the poem?
    2. Do you think animals are capable of feeling loneliness? Why or why not? What do you think the speaker in "A Blessing" meant by the line, "There is no loneliness like theirs"?
    3. Do you think religious or spiritual beliefs can ease loneliness? Why do you think so? Do you think that the speaker in "A Blessing" is lonely? Why or why not?
    4. Do you think the speaker has a spiritual experience during the course of the poem? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The barbed wire fence in "A Blessing" suggests that industrial society has permanently altered human consciousness, isolating mankind from the natural world. The speaker's action of stepping over the fence is merely temporary. It's a nice try and all, but ultimately the speaker remains mentally detached from the mysterious beauty of the pastoral setting.

    The speaker in "A Blessing" overcomes the isolating effects of industrial society by stepping across the barbed wire fence into a mysterious world of nature. In that setting, the speaker experiences a spiritual vision of the connectedness of all things. Far out.

  • Love

    Love is such a simple word, but what does it really mean? There are so many kinds of love: you love your parents (at least some of the time), your little brother (occasionally), your cat (always!), your best friend, your boyfriend/girlfriend, and your favorite pair of jeans. Plus, there's the problem of distinguishing true love from fake love (good luck with that, Bachelorette!). Still, there's a fundamental simplicity about love that we all can grasp. In the words of Paul McCartney, "We don't need anybody else to tell us what is real. Inside each one of us is love. And we know how it feels." Based on the emotional heft of "A Blessing," we'd say that James Wright would probably agree. He concluded, "What else have we got except love?"

    Questions About Love

    1. Do you think of love as simple or complicated? Explain your point of view, based on your personal experience. Do you agree with Paul McCartney's suggestion that everyone intuitively knows what love is? Why or why not? How would the poem's speaker answer this question? What parts of the poem give you that idea? 
    2. Do you believe that love is limited to relationships among people, or do other species experience love as well? Why do you think so? What do you think the speaker of "A Blessing" meant by the line, "They love each other"?
    3. How does love relate to loneliness? Do you think it is possible for a person to feel loved, but still feel lonely? Why or why not? Why do you think the speaker in "A Blessing" described the ponies as both loving and lonely?
    4. Some people believe that romantic love is the highest form of love. Do you agree or disagree? Why? Do you think that the swans in "A Blessing" symbolize romantic love? If so, why do you think Wright included this symbolism in the poem?

    Chew on This

    The speaker in "A Blessing" is deeply touched by the love that the Indian ponies display. Their love reminds the speaker of the importance of human love, flooding him with a renewed desire to reach out to other people. All you need is love, love…love is all you need.

    The speaker in "A Blessing" has a spiritual revelation in the pasture, sensing a universal spirit of love that connects all living creatures. Cosmic, dude.

  • Transformation

    Who wouldn't want to be a superhero? Seriously! At a moment's notice, you transform from a mild-mannered nobody into an incredibly powerful (and usually quite attractive) champion who saves the world. Of course, transformation is not without drawbacks. There's the whole kryptonite thing. And transformation can involve a dangerous loss of control (Hulk SMASH!). Even if you don't aspire to become a superhero, life is change, and every moment offers choices that define who you will become. Of course, we all have our comfort zones—limits on our willingness to accept emotional risks and embrace change. As he contemplates stepping out of his body, how would you describe the comfort zone of the speaker in "A Blessing"? How would you describe your own attitude toward this kind of radical transformation?

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Do you think that the speaker in "A Blessing" undergoes any significant changes during the course of the poem? Why or why not? 
    2. Why do you think the speaker thinks about reaching out to hold the slender pony ("I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms") but doesn't actually do it?
    3. René Descartes—a seventeenth-century French philosopher—described the relationship between the human mind and body as "a ghost in a machine." Do you think it is possible for a person to have an "out of body" experience? Why or why not? What do you think the speaker in "A Blessing" means by the words "if I stepped out of my body"?
    4. Why do you think the speaker in "A Blessing" thinks about stepping "out of my body," but doesn't actually do it? Do you think the speaker is afraid to take this step? What do you think would have happened if the speaker followed through on this impulse?

    Chew on This

    The speaker in "A Blessing" senses a mysterious power of love in nature but maintains an intellectual distance from it. Using a poetic image to acknowledge the beauty of the experience, the speaker nonetheless refuses to surrender a rational view of the universe. Nice try, though.

    Actually, props are due in full. The speaker in "A Blessing" overcomes fear of change and undergoes a process of personal transformation; by the end of the poem, the speaker has developed a new closeness to nature and openness to love.