‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ by Robert Duncan is often regarded as the poet’s best work. Initially published in 1960 as a part of Duncan’s collection Opening the Field, this poem uses repetition, rephrasing, and contradictions to create a vignette of the poet’s spiritual and poetic awareness.
Explore Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow
‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ by Robert Duncan is a free verse poem in which the poet-speaker describes a recurring dream or divine vision that inspires his poetry.
‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ opens as the poet-speaker explains that the meadow where he is permitted to return is both his and not his, implying that it is a dream or vision granted to him by a divinity.
This “eternal pasture” is deep within the poet’s brain, and it is so dear to his heart that he keeps it tucked away, or “folded.” However, folded up within this vision, there is a hall “created by light.”
The poet explains that his body, mind, and identity all “fall” from this meadow, indicating that it is the origin of his soul. All these “architectures” of the poet were created in the likeness of “The First Beloved,” meaning that he is a soul beloved by god.
The poet and the “First Beloved” have flowers that function as flames, or sacrificial pyres, to the “Queen Under The Hill,” an unspecified underworld goddess.
This goddess, the poet explains, manifests in the breaks between the syllables of words, appearing in “disturbances,” or disorder. She also manifests in the fold of the poet’s dream meadow in the hall.
The speaker-poet next explains that this meadow is only a dream and that the grasses bend towards the east, even just before sunset, indicating the poet’s rebirth. However, this meadow is also an “omen” of the poet’s death.
Form and Structure
Robert Duncan was a significant leader in the Black Mountain school of poetry, which emphasized using free verse structure and line breaks to create breath in poetry. This breathwork in poetry was to replace strict meters.
Accordingly, ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ is a free verse lyric poem with irregular stanza lengths, irregular line lengths, and unique use of rhyme. These ‘rebellions’ from traditional poetic form make the poem sound musical, but not overly so.
In addition, this poem was directly inspired by the critical works of Charles Olson, a peer of Robert Duncan.
In 1950, Olson published a monumental essay called ‘Projective Verse’ in which he coined the phrase “composition by field.” Composition by field essentially is the composition of a poem based on syllables and breath, not on the pulsing beat or length of words.
Whether by accident or on purpose, Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ seems to mimic the name “composition by field.” For this reason, many critics read this poem as a sort of manual of projective verse.
The main themes of ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ are spirituality, life and death, and divine inspiration.
This poem, an abstract recollection of one of the poet’s recurring dreams, takes the listener to a meadow where the poet quietly observes his role in this ethereal realm. His grasp on this spiritual place seems weak, as he can only return when permitted by divine forces or beings.
However, there is a “Lady,” presumably a goddess due to the capitalization. She rests at the center of this dream and at the center of this poem. In the middle is a secret hall where the poet learns about his death.
However, this meadow also holds secrets about rebirth and the cycle of life, as it is where the physical world of forms originates.
Robert Duncan was a very literary person with a very wide knowledge of literary theory, poetics, religion, history, and philosophy. His poetry often turns toward the spiritual realm as Duncan seeks to express what is difficult to articulate — the divine.
As such, this poem is very ethereal and metaphysical. However, the poet sheds some light on the poem in his The HD Book, where he describes a recurring dream he had as a child.
In this dream, Duncan appears in a field where children are dancing in a circle. The grass begins to point to Duncan, each tip following him. He is then transported to a throne room, where he feels compelled to sit on the throne. However, before he sits, the dream fades into darkness.
Duncan tells his parents about this dream. They tell him that it is a memory from a past life, where Duncan was an inhabitant of Atlantis. According to his parent’s beliefs as members of the Theosophical Society, Atlantis is where the fourth evolutionary epoch of mankind took place.
In one of Duncan’s recorded speeches, he remarks that, when he sat down to write Opening the Field, he felt called to write through the inspiration of angels who spoke through him like muses. However, not wanting the stigma and limitations that come with poetic musings on angels, Duncan recalls:
So I had two poems with angels, and I said, “No way.” I even prayed. I prayed, “Please let me go.” Now, the opening line of this poem — so a poem came — and its first line was “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow.” When that line came to me, I realized that by twice praying that I would not have to deal with angels, at last, I was permitted to return to a meadow.
Thus, this poem is primarily about the spiritual realm. Here, the poet returns to a metaphysical place that is both real and not real, both his and not his. It is a vision that belongs to a version of himself from the past.
as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
Stanza one of Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ opens in medias res, using the title as the unseen first line. In doing so, the poet elevates the title above the rest of the text, hinting towards the occult, mysterious, and ethereal themes within this poem.
This “meadow” functions in the land of the non-physical, as indicated by the phrase “as if it were a scene made-up by the mind.” However, it is not a scene made up by the mind because it is a “made place.”
This perplexing contradiction is the first of many in this poem. Most notably, it recalls a platonic (the school of platonic philosophy) understanding of the spiritual realm in which one divine spirit encloses and permeates throughout all things.
Because this spirit is the “body” of the entire universe, it is the manifestation of all real and imaginary things. This concept is very critical to the rest of this poem.
Thus, by “being permitted to return to a meadow,” the poet implies that, when he is in this field, he is both within the spiritual and physical realms. To put it in the simplest terms, he is dreaming.
Still, this is not just a dream. Note the use of passive voice in this stanza and in the title. Someone or something is permitting the poet to return to a meadow. The meadow is a “made place.” Thus, an unnamed, invisible higher power in this poem allows Duncan to see this vision.
Structurally, this stanza makes excellent usage of slant rhyme to connect the words “mind” and “mine.” This close connection indicates that the meadow is, indeed, within the mind of the poet.
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
so that there is a hall therein
In stanza two, we find another seemingly contradictory statement, specifying that this place is “is mine” or belongs to the poet. However, he has just stated the meadow itself “is not mine.”
Within these short phrases, the poet illustrates that, although a higher power gives him this vision, it is a vision that he also owns because it is within his mind. Both the higher power and the poet are participating in this vision, but this divine power and Duncan’s mind are the same.
The meadow, now an “eternal pasture,” is “folded in all thought,” as if it is a place hidden deep within the poet’s mind. This line was likely the inspiration for its collection’s title Opening the Field, as Duncan unpacks his innermost, most divinely inspired thoughts within his poems.
The slant rhyme in “heart” and “thought” also join forces here, as the poet illustrates that the emotions of the heart are a part of his “thought.”
Somewhere in the centerfold of the poet’s heart and thought, in the middle of the meadow, “there is a hall therein.” This line is an excellent example of Carl Olson’s ‘composition by field,’ as it repeats the “there” in “therein,” creating a rhyme that only extends to the syllables.
that is a made place, created by light
In stanza three, the poet-speaker drives a contrast between “light” and “shadows,” creating a very polarizing image of the hall in the meadow.
This hall is a “made place,” just like the meadow is, presumably made by the combined forces of the poet’s intellect (or brilliance, to pick up on the pun in line six) and the higher power that does all of the action within the poem.
In this place, the dark, shadowy “forms fall,” indicating that the meadow is beyond the physical world. However, all forms come from this meadow as well, indicating that this place is the source of the physical world.
Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.
“All architectures” also fall from this place, meaning that every structure and form of anything comes from this place. In this idea, Duncan’s meadow is the source of life and the place whence everything else in the universe comes.
Using anastrophe, Duncan explains that everything he is made up of and everything he says derives from this field.
The poet here almost removes his voice from the poem, explaining that his perspective, or what he defines himself as and says, are “likenesses of the First Beloved,” depicting this meadow as something alike to the garden of Eden with the poet standing in as Adam, beloved of god, but also oblivious to pain, punishment, or suffering.
These likenesses’ “flowers are flames lit to the lady,” indicating that the flowering blossoms, or growth, of the poet’s identity and the poem, are like a sacrifice to a Lady or a goddess who is the muse of his poetry.
However, the title of “Lady” brings up connotations of Medieval courtly romance, with the poet as the courter.
These different one-word allusions are also the “likenesses,” or symbols of many other things, illustrating the oneness of all under divine power and the spiritual realm.
She it is Queen Under The Hill
that is a field folded.
The “Lady” of stanza four reappears in stanza five as “Queen Under The Hill,” an allusion to the goddess of the underworld. This goddess manifests in a “disturbance of words within words” or in the spaces between syllables and the ideas within allusions. This line reminds the listener of the poet’s attention to the syllable and breath in this poem’s form.
The hidden meanings and sounds within this poem, the poet explains, are “a field folded.” In other words, allusion and syllables reveal or unfold the meaning behind this poem and the poet’s dream.
It is only a dream of the grass blowing
in an hour before the sun’s going down
The speaker then states that the folded field of ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ is “a dream of the grass blowing east” against the horizon just before sunset.
This verbal image vividly casts a yellow-orange haze over the words in this stanza. However, since most plants grow towards the sun, it also depicts a shift from the sunset to the sunrise, or death and rebirth. These themes will become increasingly prevalent in the following stanzas.
Additionally, note the use of the “ee” sound in this stanza. This sound occurs throughout the poem in the words “scene,” “near,” “eternal,” “beloved,” “Queen,” “field,” “dream,” “east,” “see,” and “secret.”
As such, the “ee” sound ties all of these things together, with the Lady standing in as the everlasting, lively, bright field within the secret vision of the poet.
With such context, the listener can deduce that this poem is, above all else, an invocation to a goddess.
whose secret we see in a children’s game
In stanza seven, the slightly joyous, confident tone of ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ wavers a bit.
As the speaker alludes to the nursery rhyme ‘Ring Around The Rosie,’ he also brings up several other “secret” connections.
As you may know, many theorists believe that ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ is about the Great Bubonic Plague, with the line “ashes to ashes / we all fall down” being a symbolic death. Though this theory has lost traction in scholarly communities, Duncan likely means to imply that this dream’s secret is the poet’s symbolic death.
Following this theory, Duncan also likely meant to imply a symbolic rebirth. The image of children dancing around a circle connects to the ouroboros, an ancient religio-philosophical symbol of a snake eating its own tail. This circular shape represented both death and rebirth, which, according to some ancient religions and philosophies, occurred as a continuous circle.
Other theories about this song also exist, with some folklorists in the 19th century claiming it’s about Freya, a Norse fertility goddess, or Shiva, the destroyer god of Hinduism. This connection between different religions and between life and death likely appealed to Duncan, an avid theologist.
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
Stanza eight repeats the poem’s title in stanza eight, almost restating the first stanza, but making some notable changes.
The poet explains that the meadow seems “as if it were a given property of the mind” or an occult, hidden gift granted to him by some higher power.
This meadow is fenced in, which wards off chaos and keeps everything in order. This concept reinforces the idea that it is the “light” or the source of life and spiritual thought.
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
The poet next describes the field as a “place of first permission.” This “permission” recalls the title’s “permitted.” This connection indicates that Duncan can only visit this place as a subservient to the divine force that shows him this dream.
However, the dark undertones of the “everlasting omen” that this place gives him spoil the poem’s mood entirely. Here, Duncan indicates that, with the dancing children and the “Queen Under The Hill,” this meadow foreshadows Duncan’s death.
Thus, the actual “secret” that the poet is folding into the middle of his mind is that he will die. However, like the “eternal pasture,” the sun, and the dancing children, the poet will find a new life in this meadow.
The meaning of ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow‘ is that poetry is the product of divine inspiration. The poet observes his dream, using slant rhyme and repetition to connect words and perceive a world that is beyond the physical realm. In doing so, the poet reveals “secrets” about himself, the universe, and his own death.
The tone of ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow‘ is curious, baffled, and emotionally moved. The poet has difficulty articulating the sights and sounds of his dream, offering many semi-contradictory phrases that reach toward understanding. However, he sees this dream as both a pleasurable place and an omen.
‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow‘ is about the poet’s recurring dream where he visits a field and the grass tips all point to him, indicating his importance. In the dream, Robert Duncan recedes into a great hall with a throne, where, once he sits, everything else in the universe fades to black. Duncan believed this dream was a vision from a past life.
The Lady in ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow‘ is likely, though not certainly, the Great Goddess, a powerful female goddess from Minoan, Phrygian, and Syrian mythology. Some scholars believe that she was an early form of Isis, one of the most powerful gods within the Egyptian pantheon.
Robert Duncan’s style is incredibly unique, as he was one of the first poets to put “projective verse” into practice, focusing on syllable sounds rather than full-word rhyme and meter.
Some other examples of projective verse poetry include:
- ‘Easter’ by Frank O’Hara – a surrealistic projective verse poem that focuses on the contrasting elements of life and death
- ‘The Depths‘ by Denise Levertov – a Black Mountain poem that uses projective verse to explore the complexities of life
- ‘The Language’ by Robert Creeley – a condensed projective verse poem about the limits of language when describing love