Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

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“But so as by Fire” is a poem about regeneration. A frequent theme in poetry, with roots in ancient mythology, regeneration is typically perceived as a fount of possibility, creativity, and strength. That perception applies literally to organic life, as seen in the womblike environment of the forest in the poem, and figuratively to the mind and to the works of humanity.

In reality, fire often triggers rebirth in the forest, but the poem offers the organic life in the shaded forest as its representation of the beauty of the regenerative cycle. It then explores the subject further and declares that not only has humanity turned away from nurturing its own dark pockets of vision and apparently lost figurative regenerative capabilities but also there appears to be a tragic inevitability about the process.

The poem represents the loss by likening “our lives” (although the pronoun is ambiguous, the poet’s inclusivity indicates the modern society all humans share) to mirrors. What is reflected in a mirror is not substantive and is not creatively new—it is a copy. Compared to the activity of rebirth in the darkened, symbiotic forest, humankind can be said to have lost all forward momentum. The poem implies that humans are stalled, creativity blocked, and that they stand exposed and vulnerable in the light that they themselves sought, having rejected the internal quiet, shadowed places out of fear of the dark. The poem does not explain further as to what light it means or in what way humans have “Gone/ As far as is possible.” The effort is simply to lay out the human facts more clearly, to describe what it means to investigate the human condition.

The suggested inevitability of the move from the occurrence of regeneration to the figurative loss of it in humanity renders the poem nearly tragic. The perception of the tragic in the poem can be defined as the ceaseless conflict (the terms of which are never quite clear) that cannot be won.

The evidence that the process is inevitable is most clear in two places in the poem. The first is in the finality of the past tense used in the phrase “We have gone/ As far as is possible.” The second is in the prophetic outlook that the new life, the “Hidden starry life,” is not “yet” attained. The inference is clear: It is merely a matter of time.

“Hidden starry life” is a marvelous transitional image to demonstrate what it means to lose the strength of unrealized potential. A star is “hidden” while it gathers energy in the cool hydrogen gases of dark space, but after it ignites into fiery visibility, it begins consuming its own gases until its eventual death.

The poem ponders whether humanity will regenerate somehow, “as by fire,” as life in the forest does, and find new possibilities. There are no answers given in the poem, although the tone remains upbeat. The exhortation is, after all, to “Summon one’s powers,” even if for no other reason than for courage to face the inevitable.