Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

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The linked themes of “The Stone of Heaven” are the overflowing abundance and creativity of the universe and the unity of all life. Hirshfield sees the former in every object from the most microscopic to the grandest. In keeping with her Buddhist ideas, the poet celebrates all forms of life from the minute salt crystal and the microscopic helix within the cell to the mighty forces of the earth and the heavens. She uses jade, a stone of widely varying colors, to symbolize the unity of all creation. The colors named in the poem range from yellow to shadings of green to azure blue. Though many traditions other than the Chinese have attached religious significance to jade, the Chinese call it the stone of heaven, and it has been used extensively to symbolize both heaven and earth in religious rites. As the embodiment of the power of heaven, jade plays a large part in funeral practices as well. Taoist belief is even more specific, ascribing cosmic power to jade. The history of jade’s religious importance in Buddhist thought can be seen in the theme of Hirshfield’s poem in several ways. Her very first naming of the stone in the poem’s opening lines connects it to both heaven and earth. She calls it “the stone of heaven,” but the jade she names is the common type dredged up on the riverbank and named after the colors of familiar earthly products—muttonfat, kingfisher, and appleskin.

The moral of this celebration is implied in the two-line stanza devoted to the woodthrush who sings because he is overflowing with the world’s abundance. Similarly, the job of human beings is not to fill up an otherwise empty universe but to express its plenty. This lesson in perspective and—one could say—in ecology culminates in the naming and praising of the poem’s last stanza. Humans may not be the center of the universe, but they are privileged. They are the painters and the poets (the namers), and they make crude matter into objects of beauty and utility. Humans have also been given the power of scientific discovery and the secrets of the cell. As namers and makers, it is “our” (this explains Hirshfield’s use of the inclusive pronoun “we” throughout the poem) job to fully apprehend the multifaceted world in all its beauty. To “begin to assemble the plain stones of earth” may be read as instructions for building a heaven on earth now that humans have named it and begun to truly “see” it. Finally, the power Hirshfield accords language and the artist (the namer or the poet) should be mentioned, for it is great and is announced in the reference to the Flemish painters early in the poem.