The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

George Oppen’s “But so as by Fire” is a poem in free verse, its twenty-six short lines divided into thirteen verse paragraphs resembling brief phrases. The paragraphs, or phrases, vary in length from one to four lines. The title suggests an alternative to the effects of fire—effects achieved by something else as though “by fire.” Fire often triggers new growth, as seen, for example, in the forest after a fire. Another fitting example within the poem’s context is the rebirth of the mythological phoenix from the ashes of its own fiery death. The word “fire” is not in the poem; the regenerative connotation is unspoken.

There is immediacy of place in the first sixteen lines of the poem as the reader observes “this” life that is guarded by the trees’ dark shade. Describing and extolling the virtues of nature are frequent themes of lyric poetry. In this poem, the “magic” of the natural world is protected by darkness, a significant departure from most poems about nature, wherein darkness is associated with fear or even death. The darkness here is not forbidding but nurturing.

The first two paragraphs present the larger picture, from a viewpoint of some distance—a general image of thick-foliaged woods covering the rocky ground. Then, suddenly, the author focuses in on his subject, and the images become more specific. The next four paragraphs—lines 7 through 14—detail the world under the trees. Broken boughs on the...

(The entire section is 491 words.)