Study Guide

But so as by Fire

by George Oppen

But so as by Fire Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“But so as by Fire” is a poem about regeneration. A frequent theme in poetry, with roots in ancient mythology, regeneration is typically perceived as a fount of possibility, creativity, and strength. That perception applies literally to organic life, as seen in the womblike environment of the forest in the poem, and figuratively to the mind and to the works of humanity.

In reality, fire often triggers rebirth in the forest, but the poem offers the organic life in the shaded forest as its representation of the beauty of the regenerative cycle. It then explores the subject further and declares that not only has humanity turned away from nurturing its own dark pockets of vision and apparently lost figurative regenerative capabilities but also there appears to be a tragic inevitability about the process.

The poem represents the loss by likening “our lives” (although the pronoun is ambiguous, the poet’s inclusivity indicates the modern society all humans share) to mirrors. What is reflected in a mirror is not substantive and is not creatively new—it is a copy. Compared to the activity of rebirth in the darkened, symbiotic forest, humankind can be said to have lost all forward momentum. The poem implies that humans are stalled, creativity blocked, and that they stand exposed and vulnerable in the light that they themselves sought, having rejected the internal quiet, shadowed places out of fear of the dark. The poem does not explain...

(The entire section is 510 words.)