Written just before its author’s execution for treason, the strength of this poem has as much do with its language as its distressing context. In fact, the poet was probably 28 at the time. The poem is truthful but it is also a performance, dramatizing the actual situation into a dance of life with death.
The poem gains a distressing authenticity from the biographical context, and no doubt this helps account for its popularity. It seems to come from the heart, the “I” of the poem at one with that of the condemned man writing it. Yet it would be no less fine a technical achievement if it had been framed as a dramatic monologue. The weaving of opposing statements into paradox is masterly: the effect is neither playful nor literary but reveals the profound contradictions implicit in the human condition.