Milton by Firelight

by Gary Snyder
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641

“Milton by Firelight” is part of what Snyder was later to call his “de-education.” The poem demonstrates the importance of a mythology—that system of inherited stories that shapes a given culture—and the importance of revising it to stay in touch with the total, ever-changing environment. Snyder’s stance toward Paradise Lost must be skeptically ironic because Milton’s system attempts to justify human beings’ authority over the natural world, whereas his own beliefs require that humans accept their rootedness—that is, their proper place in the ecological web of life. A false or outmoded mythology not only damages the planet but also gets in the way of fully living one’s personal life. The questioning of Milton’s story, the narrative of the American Indian boy, the ecological vision of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the speaker’s concluding empathy with the “bell-mare” are all part of Snyder’s moral effort to free himself from what he considers the potentially oppressive mythology of American and European culture.

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Snyder’s wisdom is a complex blend of ecological, Buddhist, and Native American lore. His goal is joyful hard work—with a clear mind—in a healthy wilderness environment; for example, there is the “Singlejack miner, who can sense/ The vein and cleavage/ In the very guts of rock.” At one with the land, this miner is in effect married to it. The “rock,” no longer apart from the man, is perceived as having “guts,” “vein[s],” and “cleavage”—features that, appropriately, are both human and mineral. Both the miner and the American Indian boy are in place, at home, rooted. Their thinking, like the poet’s, is concrete—not abstracted from reality. Moreover, the work of the miner in particular is effective: He builds “Switchbacks that last for years.” The miner’s sensitivity and productivity make him an archetypal embodiment of Snyder’s personal vision.

In contrast to the miner’s clarity is the self-pitying egotism of Satan, who beholds “with grief” even the idealized Eden. Satan is alienated from the natural world because he selfishly wishes to use it for revenge against God. He is a victim of his own chaotic feelings, “‘O hell, what do mine eyes/ with grief behold?’” He projects his inner chaos onto nature, so that chaos is all he can see. He is the archetype of self-conscious humankind: “Man, with his Satan/ Scouring the chaos of the mind.” Where “man” and his Satan are, there will be the mental tendency to exploit nature by projecting a heaven or a hell. All too human and sentimental, this tendency clouds the human vision of what is and separates humankind from the world.

Yet, by entering fully into the rhythm of work with the miner, or into the rhythm of nature with the American Indian, one can hope to avoid this tendency to distort reality. As Snyder writes in “Piute Creek,” “All the junk that goes with being human/ Drops away,” even “Words and booksGone in the dry air.” For Snyder, when the self-centeredness drops away, clarity is possible. This sentiment reflects Snyder’s respect for the Oriental traditions of meditation.

The final stanza’s “Scrambling through loose rocks/ On an old trail” is a phrase that, while overtly referring to the mare, provides the reader with a possible analogue to Snyder’s meditative action of reading and reconstructing the “old trails,” the mythic life roads of the past. Although Snyder seems to reject the Christian myth of the Fall, he does make use of “Satan” as a metaphor for humankind in its alienated, self-conscious mode, “Scouring the chaos of the mind.” Milton’s myth was right for his own age, but myths should change as cultural and natural environments change. Snyder’s response to his environment has been to help reinvent an adequate mythology for his era.

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