The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

“Milton by Firelight” is a short poem with four stanzas, which vary in length from seven to twelve lines. As its title suggests, the poem reviews the vision of John Milton from the perspective of one who is camping “by firelight.” Place and date of composition are provided by the author as “Piute Creek, August 1955.” High in the Sierra Nevada, Piute Creek defines an arid, mountainous terrain where during the summer of 1955 Gary Snyder was employed as a laborer. His work was to build “riprap,” which, according to his poem “Riprap,” is “a cobble of stone laid on steep, slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains.”

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The poem opens with a stanza introduced by a line from Book IV of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674): “‘O hell, what do mine eyes/ with grief behold?’” The well-known and still revered Christian myth “of our lost general parents” is brought into Snyder’s poem by this intertextual reference to the great English epic. The line quoted expresses Satan’s self-pity and resentment on first viewing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The first stanza continues with a statement and a question. The statement, in the form of a long participle phrase, reveals that the speaker of the poem (Snyder himself at age twenty-five) has deep appreciation for “an old/ Singlejack miner” with whom he has been working. The miner is a master at riprapping and is completely at home in the Sierra Nevada: He “can sensethe very guts of rock” and can “build/ Switchbacks that last for years” under hard use by both humans and weather. In the face of such wise and skillful interaction with reality, Snyder somewhat testily questions the worth of Milton’s “silly story” about humankind’s supposed blessed state and subsequent fall from bliss.

The “Indian,” or “chainsaw boy,” of the second stanza is, like Adam and Eve, an “eater of fruit”: He and the mules came down to camp “Hungry for tomatoes and green apples.” The Indian, however, like the miner, is not a hero from Christian or Miltonian mythology but a nonfictional contemporary of Snyder who is also a worker. As an American Indian, he has no need to worry about Milton; he has his own indigenous culture, one that goes back thousands of years. The “green apples” for which he hungers are real apples, not symbols of knowledge of good and evil. Like the miner, this boy preserves a certain innocence: He lives with the diurnal cycle of nature, sleeping under night skies and seeing the river by morning, hearing the jays squall and the coffee boil.

Shifting perspective in the third stanza, the speaker flatly states that in ten thousand years “the Sierras” will be “dry and dead,” home only to the scorpion. Such is the effect on the mountains caused by “weathering” and the expanses of geologic time. From this ecological perspective, there seems to be no excuse for human sentimentality; there is “No paradise, no fall.” There is only nature and humankind, although the speaker cannot refrain from voicing his frustration with regard to “Man, with his Satan/ Scouring the chaos of the mind.” He erupts: “Oh Hell!”

A mood of peaceful acceptance overcomes the speaker in the concluding stanza, as the camp fire fades and reading is no longer possible. “Miles from a road” now, work too is no longer possible; Snyder and the “bell-mare” relax into the promise of a summer’s night.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

To some extent, “Milton by Firelight” is a critique of an outmoded symbolic way of developing a poetic argument. Snyder makes little use of rhetorical or metaphoric flourish, compared with other writers of the late 1950’s; instead, he creates by more direct, simple, and “natural” (organic) means. His use of words tends to stress their referentiality (apple as a fruit) rather than their rhetorical effect or symbolism (apple as an emblem of supernatural knowledge). Snyder’s poetic stance is both dramatic in its direct presentation of the speaker’s total situation and ironic in its treatment of Milton’s traditional mythology.

The stanzas may be read as a sequence of dramatic scenes (arranged in a chronological order) that delineates the progression of the speaker’s thoughts from his initial disturbed reaction to Milton’s myth to his concluding attitude of repose and reconciliation: “Fire down.” The dramatic perspective of the poem is centered on the speaker’s consciousness and is enhanced by the detailed presentation of the physical setting. The reader seems to know when and why the speaker thinks and feels what he does. The device of omitting the first-person pronoun from the text encourages the reader to enter into the speaker’s experience. Mental associations and opinions, as though just then entering the speaker’s (and the reader’s) consciousness, are encountered with the same immediacy as the jay’s squall or the clang of the “bell-mare.” In fact, the use of “bell” and “mare” as a single, hyphenated word more accurately names an experience rather than an object: The “clanging” comes from neither the mare nor the bell alone but from both moving together. Thus, the reader encounters a poetry of experience, a meditation rooted in place.

Embedding Milton’s myth in Snyder’s poem makes possible an ironic framework within which Snyder can evaluate the relevance of Milton’s mythology. Snyder is attempting to set up Milton for a fall of his own. In identifying with the miner, the American Indian, and the horse, the speaker of the poem assumes a role analogous to that of the eiron in Greek comedy. The eiron is a deliberately understated but clever character who typically makes a fool of the self-deceiving and loudmouthed alazon. Milton is not really a braggart, but Snyder has necessarily adopted this ironic stance toward this Christian mythology to guard himself (and his reader) from its potentially negative effects.

The stable irony of the speaker’s position allows him several times to undercut the authority of Milton’s myth, at least for himself in his wilderness situation. The “story/ Of our lost general parents,/ eaters of fruit?” may indeed seem “silly” in the high Sierra, where a miner or an American Indian boy has a real hunger for nonsymbolic “tomatoes and green apples.” The Christian myth means nothing to these innocents, who have their own stories by which to live. Eden, with its thornless roses and idealized human nature, is an anthropocentric fiction; it never existed nor will exist—not even when “In ten thousand years the Sierras/ Will be dry and dead, home of the scorpion.” As the green apples ironically mock the forbidden fruit of Eden, so the dry and dead Sierra Nevada mountains mock the garden itself and the scorpion image mocks Satan. The reality of the scene seems to send the message that from the ecological perspective, as from the innocent perspective of a primary culture, there is “No paradise, no fall.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 86

Almon, Bert. Gary Snyder. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1979.

Altieri, Charles. Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Dean, Tim. Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Halper, Jon. Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Molesworth, Charles. Gary Snyder’s Vision: Poetry and the Real Work. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

Steubing, Bob. Gary Snyder. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks. New York: Counterpoint, 2002.

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