The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

“The Heart” is written in thirty-one lines of free verse. Its three stanzas represent three stages of an emotional experience that moves from fear to a vision and a sense of reconciliation. The title emphasizes the image that occurs in the first and the last two lines of the poem and is a metonym for feeling. In the first and third stanzas, the heart is nevertheless personified. Wild with passion, unruly, and unnerved by fear and anguish, it represents the persona in the first line. In the last two lines, however, it belongs to a female figure, who brings about reconciliation and hope.

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In the first stanza, the persona describes feelings that accompany a walk near the woods on a November evening. The poem begins with the anticipation and fear of approaching darkness and death. As the persona enters the outskirts of town, he observes a group of poor women, who buy cheap food at the slaughterhouse. They receive innards and decaying meat, nourishment that can clearly bring on illness. On the symbolic level, the nature of this food evokes the inner decay and disintegration of society, because nourishment that sustains life is traditionally blessed, rather than cursed, as this food is in the persona’s thoughts.

Fear, defeat, and mourning for a destroyed past are the predominant feelings of the second stanza. Instead of experiencing the hoped-for peace of the evening, the persona observes a storm, which he uses as an extended metaphor for war and destruction. Thunder appears as the dark call of a trumpet that runs through the wet, golden leaves of elm trees, which suddenly appear as a torn flag, yellow as the flag of the Austrian Empire, the poet’s native land. This flag seems to be both bloody and smoking, as if ruined in battle. A man is mourning as he listens to the sounds of the storm in wild sorrow. The stanza concludes in an exclamation calling for past ages that have been destroyed and buried following a conflagration, represented by the red evening sky.

The third stanza is devoted to a vision of a young woman who appears from the darkness of a door and transforms the devastated environment by means of purity and love. Sublimation—that is, a vision of her moral elevation and a sense of her supernatural strength—is indicated by the gold that characterizes her figure. The pale moons that surround her are reminiscent of traditional Catholic light symbolism pertaining to the Virgin Mary, particularly in her associations with light that shines through the darkness of the night and suffering. Additional images of nature—of pines felled by the storm on the side of the mountain, which appears as a fortification—are closely related to the Austrian landscape and suggest a royal court, through which the young woman attains high social, or even royal, stature. The radiant heart, which illuminates the cool atmosphere of a snowy peak, sharing its clarity, purity, and calm, belongs to her, not to the persona, who nevertheless finds consolation and awe in this vision.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

“The Heart” consists of a series of brief descriptions of scenes that the persona selects as if to convey a state of mind informed by social and historical awareness of the world. This approach lends expressionistic style to the first two stanzas of the poem, which nevertheless remains primarily symbolistic.

Symbolic dimensions are introduced by means of a fusion of several literary devices—personifications, metaphors, a rich web of adjectives, and color imagery—which resonate with both traditional associations and new connotations acquired through context. Beginning with the “wild heart” of the first line, almost every image is personified. Most images also involve movement and change. Through the multiple associations of the imagery, the poet stresses that traditional associations or expectations no longer hold. Whereas “wild” suggests daring and independence, for example, here it is transformed by fear. Even the evening, presented in the metaphor of a blue dove, arrives without bringing peace or reconciliation.

The interchangeability of inside and outside, observation and feeling, natural phenomenon and historical event, expressed by means of an intricate fusion of imagery, lends the poem emotively rich texture. In the second stanza, for example, a storm is described in metaphors that suggest war, but it is the battle that appears over-whelmingly real, even though it may be only anticipated or feared by the persona. Again, metaphoric structure prevails as historical time, the past that has disappeared, seems to be buried by the evening sky, and the real conflagration of war is suggested.

Color, both named and implied, as in snow, as well as suggested by its absence, as in dark and bare in the first stanza, contributes to the resonance of the poem. The same color tends to recur and absorb new connotative values from the context. Therefore, in addition to their visual effect and symbolic overtones, colors support the poem’s movement on the emotive level. For example, in connotations of prosperity and royalty, gold dies into gray in the first stanza and suggests spiritual impoverishment, which is continued in the images of a bare countryside in November and of the group of poor women. In its reference to the monarchy, introduced through the connotations of the golden autumn trees that appear as a torn and besmirched yellow flag, it is destroyed, emphasizing the expected consequences of war. Gold recurs a third time, as a symbol of transcendence brought about by the strength of the human spirit, and contributes to the affirmation of the value of feeling at the end of the poem.

A similar function is performed by the exclamations, which separate descriptive units of the poem, emphasize emotions that accompany the persona’s observations, and delineate the poem’s structure. Through them, the poem moves from anguish to horror in the first stanza, through intense regret and mourning in the second, to clarification and reconciliation at the end of the poem. The exclamations also add lyric intensity to the poem.

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Themes