‘The History of Red’ by Linda Hogan is an eleven stanza poem that does not follow a specific rhyming pattern. The poem is separated into sets of lines which greatly vary in number and length. The shortest stanza has three lines, and the longest, thirteen.
The poem begins with the speaker tracing the beginnings of life. She speaks of the development of painting, medicine, and modern society. She also describes how all of the histories of the earth is locked away within the blood of her body, and the bodies of all those around her.
The speaker sees “red” as being a color that represents life, death, creation, and all the horrors humanity inflicts upon itself. Most of all though, it represents a will to survive.
Analysis of The History of Red
Firstthere was some other order of thingsnever spokenbut in dreams of darkest creation.
The poem begins with the reader has arrived right at the start of the piece. It is important to the poet, and her speaker, that the reader feel a certain amount of structure as they move from line to line. The speaker describes “order” and the poet utilizes this technique through a repeating starting pattern in many of the lines. A good number of the lines begin with the phrase,“and then,” pulling the narrative along.
The first line of ‘The History of Red’, suitably enough, is a single word, “First.” Immediately the reader knows they are going to be experiencing a pattern of events that begins with this first four-line stanza. The following lines state that when the world began there, “was some other order of things.” The world worked differently than it does now. The exact way “it worked” is not clearly defined. In fact, the speaker states that it was “never spoken” of then, except for “in dreams of darkest creation.”
Then there was black earth,lake, the face of light on water.(…)painted in their own blood,after their kind.
Following directly after the time that was referenced in the first stanza, that of unknown origin, the second stanza describes a period in which “there was black earth.” During this period of history, the planet was dark, there were no lights upon its surface except for that which came from the sun. One could see by the “face of light on water” but that was all.
The world in which people lived was surrounded by “the thick forest.” This place was the starting point for the great rising of humankind. It was in amongst these woods that “light” and the “blood” that was rushing through “human clay” were able to mobilize. Humans received the sparks of life and intelligence which would fuel the next thousands of years of history. This memory of the past is not something that is lost. Those who currently walk the earth are still full of it, “we still carry” the blood of those who can remember painting “red bison” in caves with their own blood.
A wildnessswam inside our mothers,(…)stolen and burnedbeyond reckoning.
The speaker continues on, elaborating on the development of humanity. She states that there was a “wildness” that existed inside our female ancestors. This wildness was in fact the next generation of children.
When the babies are born, and they are covered with a “red, wet mask of birth.” From this point on the image of “red” is to be of the utmost importance to the narrative. The poet is going to trace the history of this color from the past to our present.
The new child has already experienced some of the most important markers of humankind. It has “already” been “wounded…stolen and burned / beyond reckoning.” The speaker is hoping to convey the fact that birth, and the early life of a child, is not simple, especially the further one goes back in history.
Red is this yielding landturned inside out(…)that haunts themfrom some place inside their blood.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker takes a moment to address the importance of the color red in her narrative. She sees red as being the colour of “this yielding land” that has been turned “inside out” by the hunters and builders who scavenge it for and with “iron, flint and fire.” Red represents the loss of the masses of forests spoken of in the second stanza.
Red is also the colour of the “fear” that makes men betray one another. It turns man “against man” and holds a “knife” at one’s throat even when one cannot see it. The wielder of this knife is not another human being, but a creature. There is another darker world acting upon the world of man. It is something with an “animal hand” that “haunts” humankind from within their own bodies.
The poet is creating an image to represent the darker interior feelings of humankind. She has created an embodied presence that carries out the cruel deeds of humanity, separate from humanity itself.
So that is hunting, birth,and one kind of death.(…)how life stands up in skin,if not by magic.
The speaker continues on to trace further the history of the color red. She sees it in “hunting, birth” and “death.” It is ever-present, as is the creature in the blood of humanity, while one moves through the stages of life.
As history progresses humankind discovered medicine and the ability to heal wounds. This discovery did not come without dark sacrifice. The speaker describes the “stolen bodies” used by doctors in their attempts to understand “how wounds healed / from inside themselves.” They were seeking out an answer to where life comes from and how bodies are able to move around, “if not by magic.”
The investigation into the workings of the human body was “Red.” It was aimed at what seemed to be an “infinite fruit” in the future, it too was tinged with red.
They divined the red shadows of leechesthat swam in white bowls of water:(…)gone outand that was a science.
While the early doctors were searching for their answers they made choices which were “read [from] the story of fire.” They often made decisions which were guided more by the stars “in the cup of water” and by the “red shadows of leeches,” than by what is now considered science.
As for the animal hand on death’s knife,(…)in the blood of other men.
The seventh stanza of ‘The History of Red’ begins by going back to the image of the “animal hand” which was guiding “death’s knife.”
The speaker elaborates on what the knife is and the ability it has to penetrate those on all sides of any “war.” It is a representative of the “red father of war” who uses other men to his own ends. This is a reference to the god Mars, or from the Greek, Ares, who was seen to be responsible for the wars which men fought amongst themselves.
And red was the soldierwho crawled(…)Love, like creation,is some other order of things.
The eighth stanza of ‘The History of Red’ continues to speak on the horrors of war and how “red” played its role so well throughout all the battles of humanity. The speaker describes that it was through “red [that]…the solider…crawled” as he attempted to escape a battle. He was stuck in ditches of “human blood” and was made to succumb to them if he had any hope of living. Here, red is cast as an escape, a way out of destruction. One must travel through death to find a way to live.
This stanza contains the first instance of the speaker referring to herself in the first person. She states that the son of the crawling soldier is someone “who lives near” her. When she met him, “thunder” filled their ears and it felt like the creation of love. It was a signal that there is still an “order of things.”
Red is the share of fire(…)And this was hunger.
In the ninth stanza the speaker states that while red might be love, death, war, and creation, it is also the simple things. It is the part of existence which she feels she has “stolen.” It is the life she is living and the sustenance she requires. She hungered for life and took what she wanted.
Red is the human houseI come back to at night(…)so nothing will be leftfor death at the end.
The speaker’s personal story continues in the tenth and eleventh stanzas as ‘The History of Red’ concludes. She describes red in her own life now and how it is there in her “human house.” It is in the “cave” of her skin that she can feel the history of her ancestors. She feels the “bison” and the “round nation / of blood.”
In her own body, she is able to see and understand all the horrors which humankind has suffered, crawled and climbed through, and survived. She knows all of this was done with the hope that there would be “nothing” left for death “at the end.” Humanity strives to outsmart death, and she is no exception.
This life in the fire, I love it.I want it,this life.
In the final three lines of ‘The History of Red’, the narrator speaks of her own desire to live and experience life. She feels it as a “fire” and she “want[s] it,” just as all of her ancestors did before her.