The Poem

“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.”

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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 581 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.