The Image in Lava

by Felicia Dorothea Browne

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The Poem

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“The Image in Lava” is a short poem of eleven four-line stanzas. The title refers to an impression, in volcanic ash and lava, of a woman clasping a baby to her breast that was discovered during the excavation of the ruins of the ancient city of Herculaneum (buried with Pompeii by an eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 c.e.). In the first stanza, the speaker of the poem addresses the image directly, asking “What ages have gone by” since the moment when the mother and infant were killed (“the mournful seal was set” in “love and agony”). The next stanza comments on all the empires, with their temples and towers (places of power), that have come and gone since that moment. The speaker thus establishes, early in the poem, one of its central themes—that the human love between mother and child is more lasting than all the powerful institutions humans may build. This contrast is continued in the third stanza with the idea that the image of childhood, despite its fragility, has outlasted the “proud memorials” of the “conquerors of mankind.”

The next five stanzas address the infant directly, first asking if it was sleeping when the moment of death came, then setting up the idea that though the fiery death was a “strange, dark fate,” it was better to end life at that moment of love than to live to know the pain of separation. That thought leads the speaker to speculate about the mother while still speaking to the child. She asks the child if it was the only “treasure” left to the mother, whether she had been forsaken by all others on whom she had “lavished” her love in vain. The speaker wonders, in the seventh stanza, if all the others the mother had loved and trusted had left her only “thorns on which to lean.” If so, the speaker suggests in the eighth stanza, it was better for her also to die clasping her remaining loved one than to continue to live and perhaps lose this last object of her love.

The last three stanzas return to the theme established in the second stanza—the contrast between the love of mother and child and all the power of “cities of renown” that have not lasted as the impression in lava has. The speaker says, in stanza 9, that she would bypass all the relics and ruins of all the impressive buildings left from the “pomps of old” to look at the image of the mother and child; though a “rude” (simple, not magnificent) “monument,” it is cast in “affection’s mould,” that is, created by a mother’s love. The tenth stanza addresses “Love, human love!” directly, asking it what allows it to leave its imprint to be preserved when all that the mighty have erected has turned to dust. The speaker answers the question in the concluding stanza, saying that human love is the “earthly glow” of holy love, a representation or a shining through into human existence, of the light of immortal love. Though the mother and child have perished, the imprint left by their love has outlasted all the monuments of power and “given these ashes holiness.” “It must, it must be so,” the poem concludes.

Forms and Devices

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The eleven stanzas of the poem are in ballad stanza; that is, the second and fourth lines rhyme, while the first and third do not. Ballad stanza was repopularized in Hemans’s time; her contemporaries William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge revived the form, which had been in disuse for some time, in their joint volume...

(This entire section contains 479 words.)

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of poemsLyrical Ballads (1798).

“The Image in Lava” also resembles, in its three-part structure, a form that Wordsworth and Coleridge employed and called a “conversation poem”: a description of the scene, a meditation upon the scene, and then a return to the scene. The scene in this case would be the impression of the woman and the infant in lava, described in the first three stanzas; the meditation on the scene would be the middle five stanzas in which the speaker of the poem addresses the infant; and the return to the scene would be the final three stanzas, in which the speaker returns to the image in lava to compare it once again to the relics of the mighty and conclude that it is an earthly image of immortal love. As is traditional with ballads, the meter of the poem is predominantly iambic (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable); it has three iambic feet in a line (trimeter) except for the third line in each stanza, which has four iambic feet (tetrameter).

The imagery of the poem arises primarily from the contrast between the love of the mother and child and the proud buildings and monuments raised by the mighty as evidence of their earthly power. The poet refers to these structures of “empires” and “mighty cities” as “temple” (church) and “tower” (government) and describes them with words such as “pomp” and “pride,” using alliteration in both instances. Childhood, in contrast, is described as “fragile,” but the words and images used to describe the child and mother and their love for each other suggest permanence—“image,” “print,” “monument,” and “enshrined.” These words suggest the iconic and the representational, especially of holy things, of things that are immortal, so that the impression of the mother and child in the volcanic dust, representing a “woman’s heart” and “human love,” are icons of divine, immortal love.

This ironic use of the imagery of an image is related to another subtle irony: Though the bodies of mother and child have turned to dust and disappeared while the buildings still stand, the image in dust survives because it is a semblance of divine love, while the buildings, symbols of earthly power, are in ruins, and no trace remains of the mighty who built them. This ironic contrast is also embedded in the imagery of dark and light: The sudden, early death of the mother and child was a “strange, dark fate,” but their love was an “earthly glow,” an image of the divine brightness.