The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Cistern” is a lyric poem of twenty-five stanzas (if one counts the blank twenty-third stanza); each stanza contains five lines. The variable rhyme scheme utilizes off-rhyme in a resourceful and modern way.

“The Cistern” is prefaced with a quotation from the Cretan painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco, who worked in Toledo, Spain. The quotation is from the artist’s inscription to his View and Plan of Toledo (c. 1609). The significance of the quotation has to do with the artist’s poetic license to change reality to fit his aesthetic purposes. El Greco thought it “preferable” to shift the hospital’s position and aspect to fit the painting’s composition. “As for its actual position in the town,” he says, “that appears on the map.”

The poem’s cistern is no ordinary reservoir to catch rainwater. The reader knows immediately that this cistern exists only in the mind; its symbolism is resonant in the opening line: “Here, in the earth, a cistern has taken root.” Though it is an organic part of the landscape, the cistern gathers only “secret water” for one’s interior life.

Above it the world goes on, time passes, and human cares and joys resound on its dome like “pitiless night.” The cistern is as unconcerned about the world as the heavens are about mortals: “The stars/ don’t blend with its heart.” In pursuing their “destined suffering,” human faces light up for a moment and die out. Caught up in “the pulse of...

(The entire section is 623 words.)