The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 545 words.)