Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Cistern” is a poem that locates the source of the poet’s inspiration in what Philip Sherrard calls “a still centre of contemplative understanding.” The poem leads away from the world of action to the poet’s inner resources; for the cistern, where all human experience is gathered in secret, “teaches silence/ in the flaming city.”

This view of poetic inspiration owes something to ancient Greek and Christian ethics as well as to modern psychology. The heroic ethic of Homer held that suffering leads to wisdom not only personally but also for the race in general. The ancient dead of the statues, for example, “our stern brother/ who looks at us with eyelids closed” communicates, however obliquely, what he has learned. Similarly, Christ in his martyrdom suffered for humanity’s sins, and through him is felt “the spear still in our side.” Yet the cistern, which gathers all this mythic and historical pain “drop by drop,” is “nearer the root of our life” than these, just as it is nearer than the “destined suffering” of personal fate.

In modern psychology, the cistern replenished by individual experience has an analog in C. G. Jung’s idea of the “universal unconscious.” In sleep and dreams, as well as in meditative states such as artistic creation, one taps this storehouse of archetypal images, which have a power and significance of their own, derived from but no longer dependent on the things of the world. The “secret water” of the cistern is gathered from human experience but is not subject to the world, which “doesn’t touch it.”

It is toward the cistern that “Man’s body bends” when it is “thirsty” for love or art, to nourish the root of his life. Then is when “our souls,” like roses, put forth shoots of beauty, “so that we may escape the body’s bitterness/ so that roses may bloom in the blood of our wound.” There in the cistern of tears the poet finds his inspiration. Like the night that “does not believe in the dawn,” or like love that “lives to weave death,” the poet is a paradox, aloof from the world, yet distilling his unique vision of the world, observing a contemplative “silence/ in the flaming city.” It is in this way that he becomes a “free soul.”