Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 641 words.)