Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The encounter with a prehistoric cave painting raises questions in the poet’s mind. What inspired the first efforts to record experience in human-created, artificial forms? How did the creation of art change the animal that created it? In using poetry to answer these questions, the writer is responding to one art form with another. Ancient paintings offer a way for the poet to speak about poetry. The painter’s tools are visual images—line and shape and color—while the poet’s tools are words.

Two words that strain with double meanings help illuminate the poet’s purposes. In the last stanza, she remarks that the prehistoric artist is “close.” The primary meaning here is “near”: Paradoxically, the poet-observer feels a kinship with the long-deceased human artist who painted the cave. However, “close” also suggests “shut” or even “dark and stuffy,” secondary meanings that remind the reader that a cave is shut off from outside reality and protected from the erosion of the centuries. In the first stanza, the poet describes the Spanish caves as “still.” The primary meaning is “quiet and unmoving,” but the meaning of “remaining” or “yet” haunts the poem, since part of the point is that the paintings are “still” there. This double meaning of “still” harks back to the English Romantic poet John Keats, who described an ancient vase as a “still unravished bride of quietness” in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”...

(The entire section is 482 words.)