"The Leap" by James Dickey
Before you begin the lecture, read the two assignments related to it, "Symbol" on page 726 and "The Leap" by James Dickey on page 728.
This poem, like the other two we have read, has many vivid images. There are images of the speaker, now a man thinking back on his school days. There are images of his classmates. There are images of himself and the other boys. And there are images of Jane MacNaughton. The images of her are the most important, of course. For the two predominate images in the poem, the two leaps both involve her and both come to represent some aspect of life.
So the images are telling and important. The speaker is important too, for as in the other two poems, the voice of this speaker is instrumental in giving meaning to the poem. His voice represents his consciousness, his feeling, his thinking and perception. It reflects what the events meant to him, and what they meant to him are what the poem is about.
So as in the other poem, it is important to define this speaker, or this voice, and the tone that emanates from it. The attitude of the speaker, of course arises from the action of Jane as he perceives it. He see Jane and her action as expressing vitality, confidence and exuberance. She leaps out of joy and that particular need of adolescents to test themselves, to measure their growth. There are still fingerprints, on my living room ceiling where my son jumped up to see how tall he was. One day I will paint over them, but seeing them there, as I do now and then, is a wonderful reminder to me of the boy he was. There are almost like a photograph, but like Jane's leap these prints capture more than just a picture; they also capture the spirit. This spirit is both universal and particular. All of the young people at the dance, the speaker describes wanted to test themselves, to leap up, to act in the way Jane did, but only Jane acted.
Jane's bold action made everyone else seem timid and inhibited. Though it made this one boy, who is the speaker, feel like one of the "slow-footed yokels...in the corner," he still appreciated her leap. It was unforgettable. She was unforgettable.
Her next leap, the one he reads about in the newspaper rings totally untrue for her. It is ironic, but more than ironic. It is the antithesis of everything Jane demonstrated in that first leap and stood for in all of these year of remembering. That someone so sure and vital should end like this is inconceivable. Through the speaker, the poem pulls together all of these feelings: his amazement and admiration, his disbelief, and his horror, and his tacit denial of reading her as her end.
The discussion in your textbook at the end of this poem effectively describes the leap and the paper chain as symbols. These symbols influence our identification of the final tone too because they contribute various emotions to the speaker's voice. The tone includes many feelings: joy, hope, irony, frustration, understanding, acceptance , and denial. They remind us how complex our response to something can be and how complex the human psyche is. We can and do feel many emotions simultaneously. Poetry, as we can see, subtly expresses these many feelings by the poetic devices or techniques. Here imagery, speaker, voice, tone, (all related), symbol--all influence the meaning.
What feelings do you see the poem expressing? Identify them and tie these to particular lines.
Now click on Page Forward or Discussion 2 to continue.
Bernadette Flynn Low