“Milton by Firelight”

by Gary Snyder
   First published in the inaugural issue of the small literary magazine The Fifties, most readers did not see this remarkable poem until the publication of gary snyder’s first book-length collection, riprap. The title sets up a relationship between Puritan poet John Milton and “firelight,” with the “by” of the title clearly indicating that the condition of reading the poet’s work will inform the discussion of it in the poem. Snyder further emphasizes the context of the experience with the location and date of composition, “Piute Creek, August 1955.” In the afterword to the 1990 and 2004 editions of riprap and cold mountain poems, Snyder describes the locale and states that it proved the source for a new class of poems that he began to write that year. Doing trail restoration work for the Parks Service, Snyder spent the summer in the northern section of Yosemite National Park. Studious as always, Snyder would have taken books along to read, apparently including Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poem opens with a quotation from that epic work: “O hell, what do mine eyes / with grief behold?” In Milton’s poem “hell” is to be understood literally, and “grief” is to be felt with a deep religious conviction. But here, we can also imagine the speaker saying these lines out loud with a tone of exasperation, not at his surroundings but at what he sees before him now—this epic poem, illuminated only by a campfire. Throughout the rest of the first of four stanzas, Snyder describes the skill and vision of the “old / Singlejack miner” with whom he works and then poses a fundamental philosophical and religious question that critiques not only Milton but the entire Judeo–Christian postlapsarian tradition: “What use, Milton, a silly story / Of our lost general parents, / eaters of fruit?”
   As if in answer, the next stanza describes “The Indian” arriving in camp with a mule team, hungry for, among other things, “green apples.” This coworker comes out of a different religious tradition than the one that Milton represents. He forms part of the daily life and work that continues in this place at this time. The third stanza invokes in its opening line, “In ten thousand years the Sierra,” a geological sense of history that exceeds that of Christian human time and depicts a future in which nature goes about its own evolutionary and geological development, independent of human concerns. Accepting that the planet will outlast people frees the speaker: “No paradise, no fall, / Only the weathering land.” In the final stanza, natural activity, the burning down of the fire, leaves too little light for further reading. This action saves the speaker from being overly concerned with Milton’s dark brooding and from being overly concerned with events out in civilization in the present time, since he is “miles from a road.” The mundane activities of the “bell-mare” that he can hear following “an old trail” places his own activities in the framework of ceremonial time. He and his coworkers build up trails that nature breaks down that were built up by others before them, to be restored again by others after them, “All of a summer’s day.” Snyder stakes out a fundamental opposition to modern civilization and the Puritan foundations of American culture. At the same time, he implies that one can sidestep civilization and reconnect with larger and historically longer natural and cultural forces. Although he elides his presence in the poem through no use of the first-person pronoun and only that one fleeting “our” in the first stanza, the poem also demonstrates a strong assertion of individuality and the possibility of charting one’s own path in life.
   Patrick Murphy

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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  • fan|tas´ti|cal|ness — fan|tas|tic «fan TAS tihk», adjective, noun. –adj. 1. very odd or queer; strange and wild in shape or manner; showing unrestrained fancy: »The firelight cast weird, fantastic shadows on the walls. Come and trip it, as you go, the light fantastic… …   Useful english dictionary

  • fan|tas|tic — «fan TAS tihk», adjective, noun. –adj. 1. very odd or queer; strange and wild in shape or manner; showing unrestrained fancy: »The firelight cast weird, fantastic shadows on the walls. Come and trip it, as you go, the light fantastic toe (Milton) …   Useful english dictionary

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