What does the seventh couplet literally mean in the poem "The Secret Heart"?

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“The Secret Heart” by Robert Peter Tristam Coffin is a tender, loving poem that speaks of a man’s best memory of his father, as the latter lit a match at night to see if his son was sleeping peacefully.  The poem uses beautiful, intimate imagery to evoke feelings of peace and protection.  The seventh couplet is as follows:

He wore, it seemed to his small son,
A bare heart on his hidden one

To fully understand the image here we must first understand what has happened up to this point in the poem.  The boy lies half-asleep in his bed, partially awakened by his father lighting a match, and is viewing the scene as if in a half-dream, thus paving the way for certain illusions and tricks of the mind.  We can say, therefore, that it does literally seem to the son that his father is wearing “a bare heart on his hidden one.”  And that bare heart is composed of his father’s hands cupped around the match to shield the light.  In the couplet immediately preceding this one, we see that “His two hands were curved apart/In the semblance of a heart.”  The “hidden” heart in the seventh couplet is of course the father’s real, beating heart, and so we can assume that he is holding the match at the level of his chest, for the “bare heart” is “on his hidden one.”

This soft, paternal image – a father holding a glowing heart in his hands, at the level of his own beating heart, to check in on his sleeping son – is warm and gentle, comforting both to the boy sleeping and to the man recalling the memory.  We can see that the boy thinks the world of his father, and feels supported and nurtured by him, whose “hands held up the sun.” 

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