“The Roman Baths of Nimes” is written by Henri Cole as a way to express his desire to break free of conformity and social norms established by his environment. Furthermore, it can be regarded as a way to put an end to an internal battle by coming to terms with his true identity. A close reading of the poem helps expose the true message the poet attempts to convey to his reader.
“The Roman Baths at Nimes,” a sonnet, has a unique modified structure which resembeles the main purpose of the poem. Originally, a sonnet was structured as “one strong opening statement of eight lines, followed by a resolution to the emotional or intellectual question of the first part of the poem” (Strand 56). The contemporary sonnet comes in two forms, the Petrarchan and the Shakespearian. Both have fourteen lines but they differ in their rhyme scheme. Cole combines the elements from the original and Shakespearean sonnets to form a unique structure for his poem. He uses a modified rhyme scheme of aabcbcdedefghh, which very closely resembles the contemporary form of the Shakespearean sonnet (because of the final couplet rhyme hh) but not exactly. He incorporates the features of the antique sonnet by presenting his internal struggle in the first ten lines of the poem and in the final sentence, resolving the conflict.
The author is faced with the struggle of coming to terms with his homosexuality, which parallels the “internal” struggle of the form of the poem. The opening sentence of the poem, “In the hall of mirrors nobody speaks,” (Cole 1) sets the gloomy tone through the author’s use of imagery to create before the reader a silent dark hallway with mirrors. The other attribute that describes the bath, “An ember smolders before hollowed cheeks,” (2) again paints a picture of a sickly individual in the readers mind and helps further set the gloomy tone. Here, in the first two lines, sight is used as a tool for communication between poet and reader as well as the speaker and his surroundings. Then, we hear sharp sound of someone emptying “loose change and keys, / into a locker” (3-4). In this set of lines, the speaker uses the sense of hearing, sound, as a means of communication. Furthermore, the speaker is a mere spectator, listening to what is happening around him and avoiding any gestures that would indicate his presence because he fears being noticed by others. We first hear the narrator speak when he says, “My god, forgive me” (4) which suggests he is startled by the noise and therefore exclaims, “my god,” (4) but upon acknowledging the nature of the noise—loose change and keys—he recuperates from the shock and apologizes. Alternatively, this line can be interpreted as a request for god to forgive him for the act that will follow. In this line, the narrator uses speech to express himself, but it is just from within, not a verbal act of speaking. These first four lines are an indication that he is not at ease with himself, his actions, or perhaps even his ideas.