The poem speaks of the nature of anxiety which is really very hard to describe. The poet brings in various similes and metaphors in order to give a clear and accurate picture of this very abstract state of being. He is able to describe the state of anxiety, but rues his inability, and indeed the inability of all the theorist and poets like him, who understands complex emotions but do not have the wisdom to allay or cure such emotions. ‘Fear tree’ is the source of fear which is used here metaphorically to suggest that anxiety and fear are not exactly the same; fear is a form of dread, whereas anxiety can have extensions of concern or tension which can have multiple modes through which to affect the individual.
‘Geometric as the parabolas of hope’: a parabola is an open curve, symmetrical in design and is created when a cone intersects with a plane placed parallel to it. Here Ramanujan is suggesting that there is no predictability about anxiety, for it may come at any time; hope on the other hand, can only be there in opposition to anxiety, and hence is dependent upon anxiety. In other words, hope cannot be conceived without anxiety, but anxiety does not follow any pattern or design. ‘A knot at the top’ is perhaps an indication about the loop style formation where a rope has a knot at the top, often used during hanging or by people who commit suicide.
‘Its’ white-snake glassy ways’ is not discernible like the white-skinned snake, but dark, opaque and insidious; a condition that cannot be seen through. ‘Eloping gaiety of waters’ is the uninterrupted movement of the water, which is completely oblivious of the state or other things; the poet compares this condition with the joyous feeling of lovers when they elope and look forward to a future full of hope. ‘Viscous’ as in having a thick consistency that is often quite sticky. Anxiety is likened to a tree, but unlike the ‘fear tree’ it has ‘naked roots and secret twigs’. Its origin may be seen or guessed but its ‘twigs’ or growth, and its final evolution is ‘secret’ or unknown. Ramanujan contrast this quality of anxiety with the free-flowing nature of hope. Hope for him is represented by the open-ended loop-like curve of a parabola. The possibilities that hope may lead to is seen positively.
‘Fibered as pitch’: anxiety is complex and knotty, not something that can be unravelled very easily. The metaphor here relates to both music and landscape; in music the higher the pitch, the richer it is in fibre; in spatial sense, it is allied to the rich viscosity of the texture, which develops the image of the viscous water. Anxiety as such, is not ‘glassy’ but is impenetrable because it is ‘fibered’ and has high viscosity. Anxiety is not clear and active like flowing water, but slumbers and flows lazily along a thick, fibrous fluid or tar. Anxiety has no metaphor to explain or resolve it as it has no fixed shape or definite movement. It has only loose ends which come to a knot inside the poet’s mind. Like tar, it is sluggish and sticky. Therefore, it is always dark, mysterious and frightening.
‘Flames have only lungs’ refers to the fire that needs air to sustain. ‘Water is all eyes’ refers to the fact that water needs channels to flow; both this and the image of the flames are granted human attributes for the enhancement of the effect. ‘And the air is a flock of invisible pigeons’ refers to the fact that anxiety is always in contest with hope; the potential for hope is always there, but it isn’t really known; the pigeon is a symbol of hope, and though it is in the air, it is not visible to the anxious mind. This inevitably seems to point to Ramanujan’s own anxiety. Through this poem, we also get to see his own gloomy temperament, his inner fears and anxieties. His imagery in the poem is complex. He uses a few words to convey his meaning and is not very explicit, and appears to hold something back.