Atwood constantly pits civilization against the wilderness surrounding it and society against the savagery from which it arose. She considers these oppositions to be some of the defining principles of Canadian literature. They also provide a metaphor for the divisions within the human personality. Society, civilization, and culture represent the rational, contained side of humanity, while the wild forest represents the very opposite: the irrational, primeval, and carnal impulses that exist in every living being. In The Animals in That Country, Atwood dramatizes the civilized urge to ignore the wildness lurking just over the horizon: in “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer,” she captures this theme with particular vividness: “In the darkness the fields / defend themselves with fences / in vain: / everything / is getting in.”
Atwood elaborates on the uselessness of defending oneself against the wilderness in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, an account of a European immigrant’s struggles to navigate the wildernesses of Canada, her adopted home. Almost every poem deals with this tension in some form. In “This is a photograph of me,” the serene natural setting presents a startling contrast to the human tragedy it masks. The glossy “[m]ountains and lakes and more lakes” depicted on the wall in “At the Tourist Centre in Boston” succeed only in reminding the viewer of the gritty reality beneath the pictures. In “Siren Song,” the jagged cliffs pulverize carefree sailors, who are in, but not fully of, nature. In “Postcards” and other poems of that era, cosmetic improvements to the natural world do little to mask the savagery that preceded human intervention. Landscapes in Atwood’s poems are harsh and brutal, wild and unconquerable, like the heart of darkness within all humans.
Atwood demonstrates a remarkable determination to confront death in her poetry. In “Another Elegy,” she asks: “Fine words, but why do I want / to tart up death?” No aspect of life occurs without some reminder of death. She is most interested in the decay of the body—or, as she cautions in “Circe/Mud Poems,” “this body is not reversible.” The historical poem “Marrying the Hangman” includes a related observation: “There is only a death, indefinitely postponed.” The body is enslaved to time and somehow disconnected from the person inside of it. “Time is what we’re doing,” Atwood writes in “Time.” In “Bedside,” she curses “the murderous body, the body / itself stalled in a field of ice.” Atwood confronts the inevitability of death most explicitly in the last section of another collection, Morning in the Burned House. “Man in a Glacier” echoes the themes of “Bedside,” as it literally represents a human body suspended in ice. “A Visit” mourns the passage of her father’s days of activity and lucidity. In “Flowers,” the speaker observes a dying father and realizes that she will undergo the same experience. Nothing can stop the relentless march of death.