One way to think about form and content — the yoked oxen of literary study — is to see content as the poem’s interest in the world, and form as the poem’s interest in itself. In “Gold,” the content is the sunrise, and the form is the poem’s search for the best simile to convey its special brilliance. The poem sits in a tradition of “dawn poems” called aubades, and the spin here on this tradition is the speaker’s anxiety about being too over-the-top with his hyperboles. We should notice that his fear of losing the reader’s trust does not delay him from tossing off his final (and most ridiculous) exaggeration, in which one of the greatest achievements in Western literature is used to convey what this fellow’s bedroom looks like early in the morning.
I don’t want to make too much of this,
but because our bedroom faces east
across a lake here in Florida,
when the sun begins to rise
and reflect off the water,
the whole room is suffused with the kind
of golden light that could travel
at dawn on a summer solstice
the length of a passageway in a megalithic tomb.
Again, I don’t want to exaggerate,
but it reminds me of the light
that might illuminate the walls
of a secret chamber full of treasure,
pearls and gold coins overflowing the silver platters.
I feel like comparing it to the fire
that Aphrodite lit in the human eye
so as to allow us to perceive
the other three elements,
but the last thing I want to do
is risk losing your confidence
by appearing to lay it on too thick.
Let’s just say that the morning light here
would bring to anyone’s mind
the rings of light that Dante
deploys in the final cantos of the Paradiso
to convey the presence of God,
while bringing the Divine Comedy
to a stunning climax, and leave it at that.
Billy Collins is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate (2001–03) and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, “Gold” originally appeared in Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Random House.