The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

“The Stone of Heaven” is a free-verse ode of thirty-two lines arranged in five stanzas. The stanzas range from two to sixteen lines of irregular length. The last stanza, a sixteen-line hymn to the earth, includes human beings in its praising and naming and is marked by many repetitions of initial words in succeeding lines (anaphora). The voice of the poet serves as a guide in the first two stanzas of the poem, signifying a place (“here”) where the earth is the many greens of jade (known as the stone of heaven in China). She further specifies the place in the next stanza, identifying it as the home of the “Flemish Masters,” painters of the fifteenth century known for the brilliance and depth of their colors; the poet’s voice takes on the tones of an enamored tourist as she describes the town, the houses, and the wine.

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In the closing line of the second stanza, she compares the detail in the paintings to brightly colored, leaping fish. A reader familiar with Jane Hirshfield’s Buddhist imagery will recognize the appearance of fish in the poem as a kind of shorthand for the abundance of life. This is reinforced in the following image of the woodthrush who sings not in order to fill the world with his song but because he is overflowing with the world’s abundance. From here the poem moves to instruct the reader in the many forms of this abundance, striking another of Hirshfield’s Buddhist keynotes: Human beings are not the center of the universe (“But the world does not fill with us”). On the contrary, the world generates its own continuous spectacle of sights and sounds. It is “a carnival tent, a fluttering of banners.”

The last long stanza is a celebration of the whole world in its abundance and variety, beginning with human beings as multitalented creators. The poet refers to humans as bakers, sword dancers, seamstresses, and glassblowers. Then she apostrophizes the forces in the universe (“whirler of winds”), the mighty sea (“boat-swallower”), and the earth’s powers of renewal (“germinant seed”). Returning to the colors of jade with which she began, Hirshfield extends the palette to include the plain colors of earth seen in other minerals, animals, plants, and rippling water. She names the brilliant and the nearly colorless: “roof flashing copper, frost-scent at morning, smoke-singe of pearl.” Her catalog embraces the visible signs of creation and those invisible to the naked eye (“flickering helix,” “barest conception”). From “the almost not thought of, to heaviest matter,” from north to south (“glacier-lit blue to the gold of iguana”), her naming encompasses all of creation. In naming and in seeing the things of this world, she concludes that humans “begin to assemble the plain stones of earth.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

Its form and structure and the treatment of its subject mark “The Stone of Heaven” as a free-verse ode in the Pindaric mode of encomium, or a poem in praise of something. The classical Pindaric ode includes a paean (a hymn of praise) as Hirshfield does in the final stanza of “The Stone of Heaven.” Like the classical ode, it is characterized by apostrophe and anaphora. The poet has set herself the task of praising the whole world (animal—especially human—vegetable, and mineral), including the four elements: earth, fire, air, and water. Throughout the poem, she juxtaposes nonhuman with human creativity in imagery that is predominantly visual and emphasizes color; its palette ranges from brilliant, intense colors to the near colorlessness of smoke and water.

Hirshfield begins by juxtaposing certain colors of jade with human creations (paintings). She refers to jade as the Chinese do: It is a religious symbol, “the very stone of Heaven.” The effect of the implicit metaphor that follows (“And here, in the glittering/ hues of the Flemish Masters”) is to place the viewers of the scene and the reader in both the paintings and the town: “we sample their wine;/ rest in their windows’ sun-warmth,/ cross with pleasure their scrubbed tile floors.” Thus the following simile of the leaping and darting fish depicts the colors of both the paintings and the town: “Everywhere the details leap like fish—bright shards/ of water out of water, facet-cut, swift-moving/ on the myriad bones.” Fish also symbolize plenty in Buddhist iconography, and thus they, together with the stone of Heaven, perform a dual function: poetic device and religious symbol.

The singing woodthrush is the poet’s counterpart in the animal world and the embodiment of the world’s abundance. His importance is emphasized in the two-line stanza devoted to him: “Any woodthrush shows it—he sings,/ not to fill the world, but because he is filled.” This and the following stanza are transitional, leading into the hymn, a version of a classical paean, with which the poem ends. In encompassing the whole universe in a carnival metaphor, Hirshfield personifies it, emphasizing its spectacle and its amazing feats: “It spills and spills, whirs with owl-wings,/ rises, sets, stuns us with planet-rings, stars.” In the long final stanza of the poem, she praises human beings as well as the forces in the universe:

O baker of yeast-scented loaves,sword dancer,seamstress, weaver of shattering glass,O whirler of winds, boat-swallower,germinant seed,O seasons that sing in our ears in the shape of O—

Together with the woodthrush’s song, this depiction of the wind and the “arpeggio” of ripples it creates in a pond (“we name them arpeggio, pond”) provide the few but vivid sound images of the poem; the wind’s “O” and the pond’s arpeggio are synthetic images, fusing sight and sound. The repetitions characteristic of the classical paean form the very scaffolding of this final stanza as the poet shifts to naming, beginning each of the next five lines with “we name.” The poet then shifts the initial repetitions to “from” for three lines, then to “naming,” and finally to “seeing.” This is the only place in the poem where she actually uses the word “see,” though the poem attempts to dazzle the reader with its visual imagery from the outset.

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Themes