Geisel’s anagogical vision in “Green Eggs and Ham”

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Theodore Geisel is a famous poet. He has yet to be studied for anyone’s Junior Poet Project and would likely prove a tremendously profound undertaking. Photo courtesy of Britannica.

Although his writings debuted with the economic satire, “And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street,” the renowned poet Theodore Geisel made a name for himself in American households due to his contributions to modern psychological and political thought. 

But even though “If I Ran the Zoo,” “Horton Hears a Who,” and “Yertle the Turtle” continue to make an impact that resounds through D.C. like a “Yop,” too much emphasis on Geisel’s political theory causes readers to ignore the subtle intensity of his spiritual works.

In 1957, Geisel published “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which scholars associate with the birth of Geisel’s spiritual phase. 

In this beloved Christmas poem, Geisel grapples with dualism in the correspondence between the physical size of the heart and one’s capacity for virtue. 

This reveals a shift from Geisel’s chaotic exposition of the human psyche in “The Cat in the Hat” to a more solemn, conservative struggle to comprehend man’s nature as both a body and soul.

Geisel returned to politics in “Yertle the Turtle,” but the works which follow mark a fascinating period in which the poet explored spirituality. “Green Eggs and Ham” is widely viewed as the zenith of this spiritual phase.

Some critics argue that “Green Eggs and Ham” is yet another political commentary.

In the preface to their critical edition, Leslie Levinson and Pamela Dwyer write,“Main Creature’s tall black hat is evidence that this poem is an allegory in which the main creature is Abraham Lincoln, Sam-I-Am is Uncle Sam, and the green eggs and ham are the temptation to executive overreach and tyranny.”

But while this analysis is fascinating, a more compelling argument is that “Green Eggs and Ham” illustrates one man’s journey from cynical disgust and despair to the Sacrament of Baptism and possession of the theological virtue of hope.

By leaving the main creature unnamed, Geisel plays the same card that Dante does when writing, “Midway along the journey of our life.” Because the creature is anonymous, it becomes easier for the reader to insert himself into the poem and acknowledge that this story of conversion can become his own.

However, the first words to appear on the pages of “Green Eggs and Ham” lie on the sign held up by Sam: “I am Sam. Sam I am.” 

This use of the Tetragrammaton, or Divine Name, from Exodus 3 identifies Sam as God. He is the first to speak and reveal himself to Main Creature, an echo of the Catechism explanation that any movement towards God on man’s part is merely a response to God’s first beckon.

The verdant hue of the green eggs is a symbol for hope, a symbol employed by the likes of Dante, the Gawain Poet and St. John of the Cross.

Main Creature’s first lines in the poem reveal his disgust for the divine Sam: “That Sam-I-Am! / That Sam-I-Am! / I do not like that Sam-I-Am!”

However, Sam’s response to Main Creature’s blasphemy is not a condemnation, but a question: “Do you like green eggs and ham?” With compassion, Sam invites Main Creature to hope.

Geisel illustrates Main Creature’s staunch despair through frequently employing anaphora, a literary technique in which the opening words of a sentence or line are repeated in subsequent clauses or phrases in order to emphasize a point or heighten the emotional intensity of the passage: 

“I do not like them in a house.

I do not like them with a mouse.

I do not like them here or there.

I do not like them anywhere.”

Like waves crashing upon the reader’s quivering eyes, “I do not like them” draws the reader into the way Main Creature is completely shut off from hope. 

About a third into the poem, however, Geisel begins to utilize biblical allusions to mark a shift in the nature of Main Creature’s despair. He desires to sup on hope, but is unable in the presence of a fox or goat. 

The fox is an allusion to “the little foxes” in Song of Songs 2:15, who St. Bernard of Clairvaux identifies as a symbol of temptation. In the face of so many assaults from the Enemy and so many divisions and disagreements in the Christian Church, Main Creature does not believe hope-filled truth is attainable.

Most scholars, including Mark Hudson and Phyllis Haverford, perceive the goat to be an allusion to Matthew 25, in which goats, who did not practice works of mercy, are condemned to eternal damnation. Main Creature continues his search for hope, but in the face of hypocrisy in a Church riddled with goats, does not understand how salvation can be attained. 

Main Creature remains completely incapable of authentic hope until he falls into deep waters. In this darkest moment, he finally attempts hope and discovers its empyreal flavor.

The waters serve as a symbol for the waters of baptism, which infuse Main Creature with the ability to hope. Through sacramental grace, Main Creature’s former nihilism and disgust with reality is turned into a garden of flowering charity, in which he chooses to hope alongside the goats.

Through the consumption of the green eggs and ham, Main Creature steps into a doxology to Sam-I-Am: “Thank you! / Thank you! / Sam-I-Am!” 

Geisel encourages readers to follow the example of Main Creature and enter a hopeful song to their Creator.

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