The city we are shown separates the poor & the rich. We see the poor. They are somewhat vicious, but not hateful. We might hold them in contempt, wondering whether they do not deserve their fate. The poet’s bashfulness allows us to pity them & to hope their situation will improve. It is not reasonable to ask these poor people to be good citizens – but in a democracy, citizens they must be. Christian charity is supposed to fix this problem, so the poet displays acts of kindness throughout.
Rocky & Adrian lend dignity to ugly poverty. But the city must help them & all decent folks. We see the ugliness of democracy as the cause of Rocky’s ugliness. This man was born in the dirt; the civil arrangement requires that he keep his nose in it. Should he think he deserves better, he would become a criminal. His kindness is impossible to explain, given his circumstances, as is his humor. But Rocky also gives the only moral speech: he walks a girl home one night & tells her to defend her honor. He explains to her good company & good habits.
The problem of the plot is how to keep men virtuous when they live in misery. If this cannot be done, if the people come to believe that happiness & virtue are not connected, democracy is doomed. The poet suggests that the first requirement is courage, hence our hero is a boxer. But moderation is not far behind, for something must keep this man sane even in misery. Learning to box is learning moderation about pain. The poet himself supplants by his art the moderation about pleasure.
Rocky fights his one serious fight against the heavyweight world champ. This proves his worth. With this reputation, he can walk among men unbowed and unashamed. This is fundamentally important. Men who do not believe their lives are worth living will not kill themselves – but they will become corrupt. They will embrace tyranny if nothing holds them back. Fear cannot do it, for that is tyranny. Shame must do it. – Rocky knows shame, honor, & reputation & this is what he teaches.
Free men must love their freedom, so their lives must offer some happiness. Justice will disappear, hated & forgotten, if people cannot themselves earn those things they think good; or if they never achieve those things they deserve. By degrees, Rocky frees himself from servile habits; he shows control over the manly passions & that the most obvious virtue, manliness, is a part of justice. He is the American citizen. What is required of him is required of all citizens. But the poet teaches gently, making him attractive and familiar…