The Alchemy of Day Criticism
by Anne Hebert

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Use of Colors

(Poetry for Students)

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One of the most noticeable aspects of Hébert’s poem, “The Alchemy of Day,” is its vivid imagery. The poet utilizes a number of image systems, including nature imagery, images of death, and images of Jesus. One of the most striking image systems that Hébert employs is that of color. Colors, in general, are very symbolic, and much has been written about the psychological effect of various colors on humans. Some belief systems, such as feng shui, for example, place immense importance on specific colors. For Hébert, colors are also important in the poem because they serve as a tool to help her achieve the goal that she notes in the preface to Mystere de la parole, and which critics such as Jean-Cleo Godin refer to. In his 1970 article in Yale French Studies, Godin notes that Hébert “begins by criticizing language (langue) which has been as humiliated as the people who speak it, for without this, there can be no language (langage) of true meaning.” In this environment of meaningless language, Hébert’s deliberate use of colors underscores the need for change in Quebec.

“The Alchemy of Day” is a poem saturated with color. But Hébert does not just include colors to make the poem more vibrant. In fact, she uses color in three distinct ways in the poem. First of all, she uses colors that mimic the natural daily cycle in the poem, from day to night. She does not do this in an overt fashion, however, such as depicting the sky changing colors. Instead, in each of the first four stanzas, she emulates this passing of day by including increasingly bright colors. The poem starts out with the “bloody beast,” which the poet notes is going to be bound “to the black pine’s low branches.” Hébert did not have to specify that the pine is a black pine. She could have chosen any other tree she wanted, but her choice of this particular tree is telling. At the beginning of the daily cycle, when day is first created, it is born out of the darkness, or blackness, of night. In the second stanza, the poet says not to “warn the girls / with violet hearts.” On a color scale, going from dark colors to light colors, violet is lighter than black. Again, this suggests the type of lightening that happens when night begins to turn into day. The sky does not become light all at once. Instead, it slowly shifts through the color scale as the sun rises and brightens the landscape.

From violet, Hébert next discusses the girls with “blue pities in / quiet amphorae hoisted on their hair.” Again, the pattern holds true. Blue is lighter than violet. Finally, the “mauve shadows” in stanza four are lighter than the “blue” from stanza three. In the next stanza, though, the poet deviates from her pattern, by discussing “the girls with green felt feet.” On a normal spectrum, green is darker than mauve. But green is not one of the colors commonly associated with the sky, so it would make no sense for Hébert to include it in her four-stanza montage of lightening colors. Also, the stanza in which the color green shows up indicates that day has already risen, by the mention of the “sun,” which mows the “soft meadow.” Through the first four stanzas, the day is going through its morning cycle, with darker colors yielding to lighter ones, until the sun is up and shining down on the green grass. From this point on in the poem, Hébert does not mention color until night “risen to its full height, stirs its ripe palms like black sunflowers.”

This is an interesting juxtaposition of images. Normally, as stated above, black is associated with night, or darkness, so it seems odd that the poet includes “sunflowers,” especially black ones, since sunflowers are usually yellow. This leads to the second way in which Hébert uses color in the poem—as symbols. Every color has symbolic meaning, and when poets and other writers use color in their works, they often tap into these universal meanings. For example, in addition to night,...

(The entire section is 9,618 words.)