The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 580 words.)