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In The Desert
by Stephen Crane
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
In The Desert is a ten line poem, broken into two stanzas, the first seven lines, and the second, three. The poem is written in free verse, and as a result, does not have a meter or a rhyme scheme.
The poem presents a disturbing scene, but through this scene, the Readers are asked to think about self-destruction and human nature more generally.
The piece begins in lines 1 and 2 by setting the scene. The Speaker is in the desert and comes across a creature that is naked and bestial. The description of the creature is sparse and the approach has the benefit of allowing the Readers to fill in the unspoken details in imaginative ways of their own. We are not told why the Speaker is in the desert, nor why the creature is there, as this seems to be irrelevant to the poem’s purpose.
In lines 3 and 4, we are told the creature is squatting – a description to emphasize its inhumanness – and we are told that it holds its own heart in its hands. Line 4 is thus a turning point in the piece as this is the moment we know, officially, that this encounter is a metaphor (nothing living can hold its own heart in its hands.)
If it’s not clear that this encounter is intended as a metaphor, or as a type of symbolism, that is clarified further in line 5 when the Speaker tells us the creature is not only holding its own heart, but is eating it. This grotesque image is impossible outside the realm of metaphor and symbolism. The shocking description seems to indicate that the Reader is intended to be revolted by the creature.
In line 6, the poem begins to reverse course and humanize the “creature.” The Speaker asks it if what it is eating is good, and also calls it “friend.” This question, which assumes an ability to respond, demonstrates a kinship between the two. The creature then demonstrates that the Speaker’s assumption of some type of kinship was not without merit by answering that its own heart tastes bitter. It can talk. The Speaker knew it could talk. Is the creature human?
The creature continues talking in the second stanza. It explains that it likes eating its own heart, both because it is bitter, and because it is its own heart.
This second stanza is intended to convey a deeper meaning. First, we must understand that stanza one tells us about self-destruction. The creature is destroying itself. In the second stanza, though, this self-destruction is presented by the creature as a positive. It says that it likes it. We see in the explanation for why it likes it, the clues as to why it is no longer human. It likes the bitterness. We could substitute “pain” for the word bitterness and see perhaps more clearly what is happening here. The creature hates itself and enjoys hurting itself. This is not an uncommon status for a human to have, but it is characterized here as a grotesque and inhuman status. We might also read into the creature’s explanation a self-deception. It seems to be saying that it is destroying itself to better know itself. It is finding out what is in its own heart by the gruesome method of eating its own heart.
When looking at the poem in its totality, we can view the poem’s message as a condemnation, though not without pity, of self-hatred and self-destruction. The Speaker seems to equate those things with a symbolic removal of one’s own humanity.
There is more to parse from this poem. Why does the Speaker make no effort to stop the creature? Why does he say nothing to discourage it? We might thus, as the Reader, also reflect that silence or indifference play a contributing role to the fallen state of a fellow man. The best we can say for the Speaker is that he was merely curious. In a way, “is it good?” is almost as grotesque a question as the act it is inquiring about.
Perhaps the Speaker saw some of his own feelings toward himself, mirrored in the creature. Or perhaps the creature is himself.
This is a brilliant piece of poetry. There are no clear answers to many of the questions it raises, though it requires the Reader to ask many questions of him or herself nonetheless, and ponder on them.
Generally speaking, I prefer structured verse poetry to free verse. Meter, rhyme, and a recognizable form help to make a piece memorable for me. It’s a matter of taste, but for me, poetry is architecture. The form helps to convey the idea – just like a building’s form helps to convey an idea. A Cathedral building – and there are many versions of a cathedral – is a way to express an architectural idea, just as a skyscraper, a courthouse, or a castle express other types of architectural ideas. Poetry has many forms to help express and elevate many different types of ideas, too.
Often when I read free verse, the author feels to me as though he or she is being lazy. The poem might include interesting word choices, or beautiful imagery, but the message lies flat on the page. It often reads like observation, or a catalogue of thoughts, instead of meaningful commentary. To return to the architecture comparison, I would rather look at someone’s ugly attempt at a building than a pile of beautiful lumber. Choosing to write in free verse, in my opinion, should be done just as purposefully as choosing to write in a particular form.
In The Desert is an example of free verse done as it should be. The poem’s message fits the subject matter and is additive to the work. The piece is about self-destruction and is replete with dark and macabre imagery. It’s not about building something up to be seen. It’s not about the world outside of a man. It’s about the ugliness and inhumanness of tearing down. It’s about looking inward at the inner man. It’s gruesome imagery makes one want to look away. Pairing this message with free verse was purposeful and it was effective.