‘Milton by Firelight’ was written by Gary Snyder in August 1955 in Piute Creek, where Snyder worked as a forest lookout at Mt. Crater. This poem was first published as part of Snyder’s first published book of poetry, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, in 1959. It deals with the advancement of civilization, the role of myth, and nature. All these themes come together to realize the modern-day world.
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This poem describes the work of an old miner on a day-to-day basis and envisions the bleak future that the Sierra might one day see. The poet draws upon lines from Paradise Lost, which were originally spoken by Satan. Here, the allusion is meant for depicting the advancement of humankind. Furthermore, Snyder presents the contrast between the past and present, myth and reality, natural and artificial in this poem. He intertwines these concepts together in a fascinating way in order to comment on the future.
You can read the full poem here.
Snyder’s ‘Milton by Firelight’ is an account of the surroundings of a speaker while he was invested in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poem poses two most common views of the modern world; one based on perception and another on reality. Both of them coexist in a chaotic yet harmonious way. In this poem, a speaker muses upon Satan’s words from the epic Paradise Lost: “O hell, what do mine eyes/ with grief behold?” He ponders upon how Satan’s comment is relevant in relation to his surroundings, including the modern world.
In the second stanza, the speaker makes witty observations about the people working with him. There is an undertone of fear in his voice in the third stanza. He imagines his world – the Sierras – in the near future, “ten thousand years” from now. He sadly remarks how it would become dead and dry by then.
Myth is usually based on the past and brings hope for the future. But the poet does the opposite of that. He has forgotten the past, and he is hopeless about the future. The speaker spends all his time and energy focusing on his present. The poem ends once the fire is out and the speaker can no longer read but can only hear the sound of mules from a distance.
“O hell, what do mine eyes
with grief behold?”
Of our lost general parents,
eaters of fruit?
In the first verse of ‘Milton by Firelight,’ the speaker begins by alluding to the lines uttered by Satan from Paradise Lost. He describes an old miner, showing how deeply connected he is with his work/nature. The speaker of this poem is associated with the miner. The old man can “feel” the rocks. In comparison, the speaker has seen diverse cultures and the versatile beauty of nature. The poet uses imagery to describe nature and the advancement of humankind. Here, his tone is slightly nostalgic and ironic. His speaker openly wonders and thinks about Milton when reading about the story of Adam and Eve, “our lost general parents” who ate at the “forbidden fruit.”
The Indian, the chainsaw boy,
And a string of six mules
In the second stanza, Snyder draws various contrasts – between eastern and western philosophies, diversity in people and their foods, and the night and morning. In a way, this verse stands to prove that harmony exists in the most strange ways. All of these things would seemingly be the antithesis of one another. But the poet illustrates that despite the differences, they exist together in cohesion. He has worked with different people and built a connection with them. Besides, his soul is tied to the lakes, the sky, and nature itself. This connection is visible in the lines, “Under a bright night-sky/ Han River slantwise by morning./ Jays squall/ Coffee boils.”
In ten thousand years the Sierras
Will be dry and dead, home of the scorpion.
Scouring the chaos of the mind.
In this section, Snyder traces back to his question mentioned in the first verse. He describes how his world looks like. His speaker has been to several locations like the “Han River” and “Sierras.” According to him, the Sierras would become in the very distant future where he will be long gone. They almost appear as landmarks for what the world was like when this poem was written that can be used as an artifact in the future. The poem is very futuristic and deals with the dynamism of time. The tone of this verse becomes one of longing and sadness as he thinks of “the weathering land” and “the wheeling sky.”
In the last lines, Snyder describes how the external chaos results from the happenings inside disturbed and distorted minds. This “chaos of the mind” originates from satanic instincts. To live with such a mind is like dwelling in “Hell.”
Too dark to read, miles from a road
Scrambling through loose rocks
On an old trail
All of a summer’s day.
In the last stanza of ‘Milton by Firelight,’ the fire goes out so the speaker can no longer read. He hears the bell tied on a mare from a distance. It traveled through the meadow and scrambled through rocks on an old trail on a summer’s day. These lines depict Snyder’s sensibility for nature. His speaker is not only connected with the men he works with but also feels for the mule that traveled a long distance. In this section, the phrases like “dirt for a fill-in” and “loose rocks” hint at a sense of hopelessness and loss.
Snyder’s ‘Milton by Firelight’ is written in free-verse. The poem has four verses with decreasing length. The first verse has twelve lines, the next two have nine lines each, and the last verse has six lines. The text has a number of internal rhymes like “Under a bright night-sky/ Han River slantwise.” However, it does not have a regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. It is written from the perspective of a first-speaker who muses on Milton’s Paradise Lost by keeping his surroundings in view.
Snyder’s ‘Milton by Firelight’ contains the use of the following literary devices.
- Personification: The poet gives human characteristics to the rocks in the lines, “The vein and cleavage/ In the very guts of rock.”
- Allusion: In the lines, “The Indian, the chainsaw boy,” Snyder refers to the Native Americans to express the contrast between Eastern and Western philosophies. He tries to show the diversity that exists in the world. Besides, the poet highlights the diversity in culture by mentioning “Hungry for tomatoes and green apples” as well. He interestingly draws upon the story from Paradise Lost and uses it in this poem as a way of expression.
- Alliteration: It occurs in the lines, “And a string of six mules,” “Sleeping in saddle-blankets,” “In ten thousand years the Sierras/ Will be dry and dead,” etc.
- Metaphor: Snyder says, “No paradise, no fall,/ Only the weathering land/ The wheeling sky,/ Man, with his Satan/ Scouring the chaos of the mind./ Oh Hell!” In these lines, he compares “hell” to a state of mind like Satan does in Milton’s epic. Besides, he compares “Satan” to the “chaos of the mind.”
- Imagery: The speaker uses vivid imagery to help the readers imagine the poem’s context. The reference of locations like the Han River and Sierras allows readers to “locate” the poem. Further, the poet uses simple and beautiful words to paint a visual image; for example, “Under a bright night-sky/ Han River slantwise by morning./ Jays squall/ Coffee boils.”
- Enjambment: It occurs in “That packed dirt for a fill-in/ Scrambling through loose rocks/ On an old trail/ All of a summer’s day.”
- Apostrophe: Snyder addresses Milton directly in the lines, “What use, Milton, a silly story/ Of our lost general parents,/ eaters of fruit?”
One of the important themes of Snyder’s ‘Milton by Firelight’ is myth and reality. In this piece, Snyder dwells on the Biblical Story rewritten by John Milton in his book, Paradise Lost, which accounts for the story of the fall of Adam and Eve and Satan’s rebellion.
While reading the epic by John Milton, the poet asks, “What use, Milton, a silly story/ Of our lost general parents,/ eaters of fruit?” He openly ponders upon the relevance the story holds for someone like him. Eventually, the poet says, “Man, with his Satan/ Scouring the chaos of the mind./ Oh Hell!” He comes to the conclusion that man’s satan is his disoriented mind which creates a “hell” out of “heaven.” Thus, the poet wonderfully draws upon myth and reality to execute this poem.
Another important theme of the poem is the past, the present, and the future. The poet describes the future of the Sierras in ten thousand years as “dry and dead.” This thought-provoking piece encourages readers to anticipate the changes in the world at a time far ahead of them.
Gary Snyder wrote the poem ‘Milton by Firelight’ in 1955 when he stayed in Piute Creek. Then, Snyder worked in the Sierras. It was first published as part of Snyder’s first poetry collection, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, in 1959. In this collection, Snyder draws on his experiences as a forest lookout and the trail crew in Yosemite. Associated with the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance, Snyder is regarded as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology.” His concern for nature and the environment is present in ‘Milton by Firelight.’ Explore more Gary Snyder poems.
Gary Snyder’s poem ‘Milton by Firelight’ is about a speaker who thinks about myths, reality, and the future. These different aspects are intertwined in the poem. The poet paints a hopeless picture of the future world where icecaps are wiped out, and trees are bent on the ground.
The poem begins with a quote from book four of Paradise Lost by John Milton, which is a retelling of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and Satan. The words are spoken by Satan. Through this line, Snyder tries to hint at human advancements.
The tone of the poem is narrative, thoughtful, and reflective. In the second stanza, his tone becomes nostalgic and romantic as he talks about his surroundings.
The theme of the poem is myth versus reality, the diversity of nature and humans, the changing nature, and time. The main idea of the poem revolves around the future of the world and the deteriorating condition of the present world.
This poem is written in free-verse as it does not have a regular rhyme or meter. However, Snyder uses a few internal rhymings within the lines. The text consists of a total of four stanzas with an uneven number of lines. It is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker who is none other than the poet himself.
The following poems similarly tap on the themes present in Gary Snyder’s poem ‘Milton by Firelight.’ You can also explore some John Milton poems.
- ‘Past, Present, Future’ by Emily Brontë — This poem describes the differences between the past and the present.
- ‘To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence’ by James Elroy Flecker — Through this piece, Flecker tries to reach out to future generations of writers.
- ‘I Dream a World’ by Langston Hughes — This poem outlines Hughes’ vision of a utopian world where one is not judged on their skin color.
You can also explore these inspirational poems about nature.