Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Schwartz provides a clear indication of the theme of “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me” in the phrase he affixes to the poem as a kind of subtitle: “the withness of the body.” Usually attributed to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, this short descriptive epigraph suggests the complex nature of the human condition. Man is a dual creature; he is possessed of a consciousness that gives him a sense of time and of “otherness,” but at the same time he is an animal like other animals. Human consciousness exists within a body that demands the same kind of life-sustaining materials and is subject to the same kinds of appetites—for food, for physical comforts—as other, lower creatures. Further, no matter how unique any man thinks he is, he cannot deny that he has bodily needs remarkably similar to the “hundred millions of his kind” (line 34); this sobering thought is meant to counterbalance the vanity men feel in promoting their own individuality.

The poet is dramatizing the long-debated issue of man’s dual nature. The only creature on earth possessing a sophisticated consciousness that gives him a moral sense and an understanding of the consequences of his actions, man is nevertheless compelled to exist in a material body that is really as much a part of him as is his higher intelligence. No matter how hard he tries, man is never able to separate his spiritual nature from his physical side.

Schwartz’s extended descriptions of the bear are intended to suggest the physical conditions under which the human body exists. All animals—including the human animal—crave the physical comforts that this bear seeks. Further, many of the actions that humans take are indeed reminiscent of the clumsy behavior of this dumb bear; humans, Schwartz is saying, are often embarrassed by their bodies. At those moments when consciousness wants people to be most human—when a situation calls for erudition or sensitivity, for a clear statement to others that would help one express exactly what one thinks or feels—the material side of human nature seems to get in the way, to be like the lumbering bear, a creature that fumbles and gropes in a most unhuman way to make the expressions of consciousness apparent to the outside world.