Throughout ‘The City Limits,’ the speaker uses wonderful examples of images that evoke the movements, connections, and habits of animals, plants, and natural spaces. They use juxtaposition in order to contrast the light and dark of nature and the city while also citing specific examples using creatures and environments.
Explore The City Limits
‘The City Limits’ by A.R. Ammons is a thoughtful and beautiful poem about the natural world.
The poem uses the phrase “When you consider” throughout the poem, directing his words to all possible readers. He’s asking everyone to “consider” the content of the natural world, the way all living things interact, and realize that it has a great deal to offer, especially when compared to the city. The city is limited, and when one reaches those limits, physical and spiritual, there is the interconnectivity of nature waiting.
You can read the entire poem here.
Structure and Form
‘The City Limits’ by A.R. Ammons is a six-stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets are written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. End words like “withhold,” “every,” and “consider” do not rhyme. The poem’s lines are similar in length, but there is no consistent metrical pattern either.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound a the beginning of multiple words. For example, “cranny” and “consider” in line three of stanza one and “birds’ bones” in line one of stanza two.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the second stanza as well as lines two and three of the third stanza.
When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider
In the first stanza of ‘The City Limits,’ the speaker begins in the same way that he does throughout the rest of the poem, with the phrase “When you consider.” This asks the reader to consider the ways that nature is superior to life within the city limits. The city, as the title suggests, is limited. There is only so much it can provide for those living there.
There is an “abundance” of “radiance” in nature that is overflowing. It’s not hidden or “overhung.” It’s clearly there for one’s consideration. This is the first of several reasons the poet lists.
that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest
The second stanza asks the reader to consider the fact that the “birds’ bones” don’t make an awful noise against the light but “lie low in the light as in a high testimony.” This suggests that the natural world is more peaceful and far more spiritual than the industrial world created by humankind. Nature is honest in a way that the human-made world is not.
swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue
The speaker notes that nature will penetrate into the “swerving of the weaving heart” and “beat itself upon them.” When one allows nature, it can reveal truths about oneself that are hidden in the dark of the city limits.
The image of “light” is reoccurring in these stanzas. It contrasted against words like “overhung” and “darkening.”
bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider
The poet uses the lines of this poem to elevate the similar lives of animals like birds and flies to show the beauty of the natural world. It has a great deal to offer. Nature does not flinch away from darkness either, the speaker says. It confronts death and decay in a way that the city does not. This is part of its honesty and purity.
that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the
In the second to last stanza, the speaker asks the reader to consider the various elements of the natural world, things seemingly as different as “squid,” “wolf,” and “shale.” Everything, no matter its form, is “accepted into as much light as it will take.”
When one considers all these things, the “heart moves roomier.” The heart should open up, and it too should accept the world as it is. The phrase “the man” is used at the end of this stanza, setting up the image of a single person looking around nature and seeing the ways it differs in its relationships from human beings.
leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.
The person stands and looks around and sees that the “leaf does not increase itself above the grass.” One thing does not try to appear better than another. The dark and mysterious workings of the world are in tune “with May bushes.” This is a way of telling the reader that all things are connected, no matter their size or apparent importance.
When one might initially fear the natural world and see it as something one needs protection from (thus the creation of cities), it’s not the truth when one looks closer. The “fear” turns to “praise.”
The tone is peaceful and passionate. The speaker uses repetition to emphasize their opinion of the natural world. They are seeking to share it with others. But, they do not push it violently upon the reader.
The purpose is to celebrate the natural world and make it clear that the city has a lot to offer, but it can’t replace the interconnectivity and beauty of nature.
The themes at work in this poem are nature and industrialization. It’s clear the speaker believes that human beings confining themselves to cities is a mistake. Nature offers too much to be ignored.
The speaker is someone who is fond of the natural world and has the patience to analyze it, breaking it down as they do in the lines of ‘The City Limits.’
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other A.R. Ammons poems. For example:
- ‘Their Sex Life’ – a short poem that presents sexuality and relationships in modern times.
Some other related poems include:
- ‘Hymn to the Spirit of Nature’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley – a beautiful poem that uses Greek mythology to speak about nature.
- ‘Eagle Poem’ by Joy Harjo – depicts the movements and life of an eagle.