The title of Jane Miller’s poem “Sonnet Against Nuclear Weapons” gives the reader a clear impression as to what the content of the piece will address: the reader anticipates a polemic against the usage of nuclear arsenals in poetic form. However, when encountering the text itself, there appears to be no explicit imagery that suggests the theme of nuclear weapons. Namely, the title in Miller’s work plays a key strategic role: it in a sense forces the reader to approach the poem in a certain way, that is, keeping in the back of the mind the theme of nuclear weapons while reading. The key question regarding the poem thus becomes the following: what is the relationship between nuclear weapons and the content and poetic imagery itself? Why does Miller, in other words, give the reader such a clear and lucid title for her poem, while the poem itself is abstract in its imagery? Perhaps the reason for this technique is that Miller’s writing how the nuclear threat actually touches us: it is something in the background, a possibility that we know exists, lurking in the back of our minds. Accordingly, when reading Miller’s poem, there is always this same imagery of nuclear war in the background because of the title, occasionally surfacing as we read the poem itself: this is the same way in which the nuclear armament of the planet affects us, always serving as a backdrop.
Certainly, there is imagery in the poem which reflects themes of life and death. For example, the opening line of the poem is “the human sigh commuted to life imprisonment.” This could easily be interpreted as a commentary on nuclear weapons: in a sense, with the nuclear armament of the planet our existences our imprisoned and limited by the possibility that nuclear war and the destruction of the planet could occur at any time. On the other hand, however, this line itself does not explicitly address nuclear weapons: for example, the reader could take it to describe any type of existential situation that is framed by despair and hopelessness. It is therefore only through the title itself that a more precise meaning is given to this opening line. The title, in other words, functions as something like a guide to the understanding of the poem’s imagery.
However, the poem’s imagery, without this title, nevertheless remains ambiguous. The next stanza reads: “A log, and so on and so forth/anti-pastoral and realistic.” Once again, there is no explicit reference or allusion to nuclear weaponry in these lines. However, we can certainly discern these lines meaning from the title. For example, in so far as pastoral indicates an idyllic, natural environment and setting, the use of “anti” before the word clearly intends to show the obliteration of such imagery. This clearly plays into the theme of nuclear destruction that is defined by the poem. The first line, “A log, and so on and so forth”, is deliberately ambiguous: the reader is only given an image. Then, in the next line, the further imagery helps develop the theme as determined by the title. This is an instance the surfacing of the theme of nuclear war from the background of the poem, an experience that perhaps mirrors how we ourselves live in relation to nuclear war’s possibility: we only occasionally think about it, it emerges as a topic when some political catastrophe occurs. Miller in this sense is trying to capture the feeling of how we ourselves relate to nuclear weaponry: mostly we ignore it, although we know the threat exists.
But how can we understand the title’s explicit stance “against nuclear weapons?” This is perhaps made clearer in the recurring imagery of the poem such as that of “the seven eyes of God” and “the snake.” The snake is a clear archetypical symbol: from the Biblical myth, for example, it represents satanic and evil forces. God, instead, is portrayed with seven eyes, suggesting a form of wisdom that befits an omniscient and omnipotent being. By playing these two symbols off of each other, Miller depicts a clear conflict between good and evil; in the context of the poem’s title, the snake symbolizes nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war. Namely, the last lines of the poem demonstrate how Miller’s sonnet is a protest “against” the evil of nuclear weapons, as she writes: “She remembers a human sigh against/the suppression of rights. A snake.” The human sigh is a plea of desperation against “the suppression of rights”, which, in the context of the poem, becomes arguably a suppression of the right to live. This is precisely what nuclear weaponry accomplishes: it is the possibility of a death of the planet at any instance. It is this snake which always exists as a threat, tempting the human being to destruction of the race as well as the planet.
Without the title of the poem, Miller’s work would be subject to multiple interpretations. It could, for example, be described as a general account of human despair. However, her clear title provides a map with which the reader can approach the poem. This title, in other words, makes sense of the imagery of the poem. However, at the same time the ambiguous nature of the imagery means that we are not constantly confronted with the theme of nuclear weapons, but instead implicitly confronted with this theme throughout the poem. And this is arguably precisely how the threat of nuclear weapons shows itself in our daily lives: something that exists beyond the activities of everyday life, but a threat that all too real and destructive, something that we rather not think about, since its true meaning is the destruction of human existence.