What is a theme of "The Lives of the Heart" by Jane Hirshfield?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem "Lives of the Heart," found in the collection Lives of the Heart, is a tour through the ecological wonderland of our biosphere. Hirshfield conjures images of everything from plankton fossils that formed oil shale to volcanoes hissing into the sea to pine or fir carpeted forests. The theme of this ecological survey is conveyed in the last few lines in which Hirshfield says that "not one" of all those suggested and alluded to in the masterful imagery of the poem is not part of every other; that not one is not nurtured to "blossom" by every other; that not one does not know joy in the loins of sexual ecstasy; that not one does not grieve:

Not one is not held in the arms of the rest, to blossom.
Not one is not given to ecstacy's lions.
Not one does not grieve.
Each of them opens and closes, closes and opens
the heavy gate--violent, serene, consenting, suffering it all.

Hirshfield makes a poetic case for all forms of life on earth being united by the most basic feelings and sensations that are cherished as "human." Hirshfield thereby makes the case that human qualities are qualities shared by all earth's life forms whose "heavy gate" of the heart "opens and closes, closes and opens" with "violent, serene, consenting, suffering" feelings and sensations just as humans' heavy gates of the heart do.

Hirshfield's imagery unfolds vistas with just a few words that trigger stored knowledge of nature and humanity. Two of the most memorable are "tear sweet grass with their teeth" and "Go blind in the service of lace." The first conjures the image of a horse contentedly chewing grass in a soft, green meadow, while the second conjures images of worn old women tatting lace to toil for their livings (not uncommon in days past). A second theme emerges of the sacredness of all these life forms and of compassion for the joy and suffering of them all, a theme significant to many (indeed to all) in these times of changing ecological environments. 

epollock | Student

From the poem, one must conclude that there is nowhere on earth where the lives of the heart are not to be found. The power of life, in short, motivates people to travel everywhere and get involved in everything. Line 30 (“Not one is not given to ecstasy’s lions”) suggests that love and ecstasy are common human attributes. Line 20 (“Go blind in the service of lace”) may suggest the sometimes deleterious effects of work and effort, with lace serving as the emblem of a worker’s achievement. The repetitiveness of words seems designed to echo the regularity of a heartbeat. The repetitions of words suggest this detail, and the repetitions of identical grammatical structures do the same. The visual and aural active verbs suggest the human energy that is brought about by the many and variegated ways in which people face the needs and challenges of life.

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