Mystery of the Word Summary
by Anne Hebert

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Mystery of the Word Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Mysterious, brooding, and introspective, Hébert’s poetry is distinctly her own. Her third collection of poetry, Poems, contains the poems of the previously published The Tomb of the Kings. A second section contains a short prose text, “Poetry, Broken Solitude,” and fifteen poems, including the poem “Mystery of the Word.” This poem has a sweeping biblical style and a solemn tone that speaks of possession, belonging, discovery, and beginnings. Whereas in The Tomb of the Kings Hébert evokes death and dispossession, in “Mystery of the Word” she celebrates life and the creative power of the word. Composed of sixteen long lines, “Mystery of the Word” recounts the birth of a primitive society that receives the gift of fire. The fullness and splendor of fire’s horror are revealed to the society.

The text opens in a tranquil landscape, miraculously awakened by enlightening forces that instill in the individual a sense of belonging and magical wonderment. Received by outstretched hands like a sword, this event is an ennobling experience. Odorous arrows, a metaphor describing the fullness of sensuality, inevitably draw the senses to ferns, leaves, flowers, damp wood, blue grasses, and the ambient world, expressed as a musk-laden beast. Colors and sounds, personified, visit this new land in masses while the enchantment of dreams seizes the minds of the innocent.

As if by a curtain rising on a stage, announced by three beats of a stick (which is compared to the rhythmic pulsation of blood), the fullness of the world is revealed, and, in an instant, takes hold of the human psyche. With it, the gift of the word is received, and seizes everything in a sweeping gesture. Through words, humanity and dawn, symbolic of the beginning of a civilization, become one. Forest and city, untamed lands and civilized collectives dot the land, which has become identifiable by the use of language.

The humanizing quality of language, its capacity to express the fullness of existence, makes it an indispensable element in the foundation of civilization and culture. It should be noted that Hébert’s conception of the primordial importance and power of language is consistently expressed throughout her work. In the final verse of “Mystery of the Word,” the narrative voice expresses the desire that the individual possessing the power of the word assume the responsibility of telling of life and death, at dawn among the grasses. This poem confirms the place of language in Hébert’s aesthetics; for Hébert, language is the means by which the fullness of existence, including dreams and inexplicable manifestations of the unknown, is powerfully and simply expressed.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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