The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

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“In the Crevice of Time” is a brief meditative lyric consisting of four stanzas of six lines each. The first stanza makes clear the subject of the poem: poet Josephine Jacobsen’s reaction to cave paintings in Spain. Unlike many poems that respond to or are influenced by works of art, this poem provides very little sense of what the cave painting looks like. The first three lines identify an ambiguous prey—“The bison, or tiger, or whatever beast”—and “the twiggy hunter/ with legs and spear.” The rest of the poem speculates on the artist who created the painting that has endured so long, preserved “in the crevice of time.”

The artist is introduced in the last line of the first stanza as “the hunter-priest” since, in an era so primitive, artistry could hardly have been his main occupation. The second stanza shows that the poet imagines this cave painter as the original artist, the first (or one of the first) to act on an impulse to represent reality. She imagines him struck, in the act of hunting, by the spatial arrangement of animals and hunters; the hunter becomes an observer and art is born as “an offering strange as some new kind of death.” The puzzling comparison of art to death grows clearer in the third stanza, where the poet relates the beginning of cave painting to the beginning of the practice of burial—both behaviors said to distinguish humans from their more animalistic ancestors. The death that is related to art, then, is not simply the ending of life but “the knowledge of death.” With that knowledge comes a different awareness of time and the beginnings of a new emotion: grief. The poet argues, by imaginative extrapolation, that art, like funeral customs, is a way of preserving human experience against the forces of time and mortality that threaten to turn everything to dust.

The last stanza imagines the cave painter in the act of creation, “scraping the wall.” However, the great temporal distance has been bridged: The early human is a “confrère” or brother, and, most importantly, “he is close.” The final lines of the poem conclude the meditation on the relationship of funeral customs and art by asserting their common purpose as acts of faith; art is celebrated as a force that can cross “the crevice of time,” even providing a bridge between the contemporary and the prehistoric.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

This poem reads prosaically at first. That is, the diction is simple and speechlike, and, in the first two stanzas, most of the lines are enjambed, which tends to disguise the metrical pattern and rhyme. However, like most modern rhymed poetry, a careful structure undergirds the graceful surface of the poem. The rhyme scheme seems more pronounced in the third stanza, with its end-stopped lines and one extra rhyme. The first and last lines of each stanza rhyme, as do the second and fourth. More importantly, the first/last rhyming words outline significant contrasts that reveal some of the poem’s meaning: “beast” and “priest”; “breath” and “death”; “grave” and “gave”; and “wall” and “burial.” The contrast between “beast” and “priest” highlights the contrast between primitive and civilized organizations of the human species. “Breath” and “death” suggest the awareness of mortality that shapes human consciousness. “Grave” and “gave” remind the reader that the burial customs of prehistoric people ironically give the contemporary world information about how they lived. The “wall” that is the prehistoric canvas is also part of a tomb or “burial.”

Most of the lines in the poem are four-stress lines with ten or eleven syllables, indicating a mix of iambic and anapestic feet. In stanzas 1, 2, and 4, the fifth line is a shorter, three-stress line. The point is that the poem, while not adhering to a rigorously strict metrical pattern, is carved out in roughly regular units of four-stress lines—a loose but recognizable meter. The figurative language stands out against the speechlike or ordinary diction, as in the synecdoches “the million rains of summer” and “the mean mists of winter,” both signifying the passing of time. “Blood” and “breath” in line 7 also create a synecdoche for the killing of the hunt. When that same device is carried over into the next line—referring to the hunted animals as “shank,” “horn,” or “hide”—the figurative language becomes literal. That is, the reader knows that the slain prey will be converted into its parts and used by the hunters as food, tools, and clothing. However, the hunter-priest-cum-artist no longer perceives the prey in that way but as an artistic whole—“the terrible functionless whole.” The term “functionless,” a surprisingly abstract word in the midst of a concrete stanza, reminds the reader that art is often viewed (and even celebrated) as useless, as not having a practical or survival-oriented function.

The third stanza presents two vivid personifications: “time the wicked thief” and “the prompt monster of foreseeable grief.” The first is more familiar, even close to clichéd in its association of time with theft of life and memory. The incarnation of grief as a monster is more original, and the words “prompt” and “foreseeable” stress the immediacy of the mental transformation and its consequences in the moment in which art and awareness of mortality are born as twins.

Alliteration, assonance, and word repetition provide further shape to the poem. The second line packs in three versions of “hunt”; the next line alliterates “spear,” “still,” and “Spain.” The second half of the first stanza repeats m sounds prominently and sharpens them with the short i assonance of “mists” and “winter.” Similar examples appear throughout the poem and testify to how carefully Jacobsen chooses her words. The language is chiseled like the lines of an ancient sculpture. In the third stanza, for example, “grave” echoes “gross,” while “gesture” is repeated; “neither,” “nor,” “news,” “no,” “need,” and “knowledge” alliterate in the space of three lines; and assonance is accented in adjacent words (the short o in “prompt monster” and the long e in “foreseeable grief”).