Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

The encounter with a prehistoric cave painting raises questions in the poet’s mind. What inspired the first efforts to record experience in human-created, artificial forms? How did the creation of art change the animal that created it? In using poetry to answer these questions, the writer is responding to one art form with another. Ancient paintings offer a way for the poet to speak about poetry. The painter’s tools are visual images—line and shape and color—while the poet’s tools are words.

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Two words that strain with double meanings help illuminate the poet’s purposes. In the last stanza, she remarks that the prehistoric artist is “close.” The primary meaning here is “near”: Paradoxically, the poet-observer feels a kinship with the long-deceased human artist who painted the cave. However, “close” also suggests “shut” or even “dark and stuffy,” secondary meanings that remind the reader that a cave is shut off from outside reality and protected from the erosion of the centuries. In the first stanza, the poet describes the Spanish caves as “still.” The primary meaning is “quiet and unmoving,” but the meaning of “remaining” or “yet” haunts the poem, since part of the point is that the paintings are “still” there. This double meaning of “still” harks back to the English Romantic poet John Keats, who described an ancient vase as a “still unravished bride of quietness” in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The line identifies the artifact not only as a bride as yet unravished but also as an unmoving and unchanging work of art that endures the ages. It is hard for a modern poet to reflect on the endurance of a work of art across the ages without evoking Keats’s famous poem. Keats, too, saw the endurance of the ancient artifact as a triumph against mortality and as an emblem for his own poetry. Where Jacobsen’s poem differs is in reaching back to primitive humankind rather than the highly refined civilization of the Greeks. Keats evokes a distant kinship with the artists and people of ancient Greece. Jacobsen, in reaching further to the cave paintings, is able to raise questions about the very origins of art.

Answering those questions, or at least providing an imaginative hypothesis in response to them, Jacobsen sees the artistic impulse as a desire to communicate beyond the grave. The work of art becomes a monument, something that outlives the artist and thus reflects a conscious awareness of mortality. She suggests that such an awareness of death is cause for celebration, an artistic force that gives birth to history out of the prehistoric. In this grand context, the poet’s own work has a place, her own equivalent of the stick figures and hunted bison—the record of feelings, thoughts, and images of a living creature that knows it is going to die and leaves a poem behind.

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