Pierre Reverdy was a French poet who is remembered as part of the Surrealist movement in Paris. ‘Central Heating’ is a great example of the stream-of-consciousness style that marked out much of the writing in this period. The poem was published in 1916, early in Reverdy’s career. This particular version was translated from French to English by Michael Benedikt. Readers should keep this fact in mind when moving through the text. Often, images and elements of a writer’s style can be lost in the process of translation.
Explore Central Heating
Summary of Central Heating
The poem uses a stream-of-consciousness style narrative and many poignant images in order to depict the speaker’s concerns about his life and love. There is someone he loves, the “you” addressed in this poem, but he has other issues. He feels as though nothing in his life is real. But, not just in his life, in the entirety of the world. (Perhaps a factor which stemmed from WWI which was ongoing when this poem was written.) He believes that its possible for him to be changed by the “magnet” at his core attracting him to other people, or to this person in particular but he isn’t sure.
Themes in Central Heating
Throughout this poem, Reverdy engages with themes of love, reality, and existence. The last two are connected as the speaker tries to navigate his world and the things around him. He is of the mind, at least philosophically, that nothing is real. All of reality, he determines, is artificial. Even his lover’s face.
Despite his dissatisfaction with the world, he is experiencing a love that he can’t deny. It may or may not be strong enough to convince him of its reality, but it is there. He’s passionate about an unnamed woman he addresses as “you” in the text of the poem. One might even stipulate that his love is the cause of his questioning reality.
Structure and Form
‘Central Heating’ by Pierre Reverdy is a three-stanza poem that is separated into one set of five lines, one of four, and a final stanza of sixteen lines. Reverdy chose not to make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in ‘Central Heating’. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t examples rhyme, full and half, to be found in the stanzas. For example, “Over” and “shadow” in line three of the first stanza and “visible” and “artificial” in line five of stanza three.
Reverdy makes use of several literary devices in ‘Central Heating’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and imagery. The first of these, alliteration, is a formal device that’s seen through the use and reuse of words that start with the same consonant sound. For example, “light,” “landing,” and “lighting” in line two of the first stanza and “spark” and “strike” in line two of the third stanza.
Enjambment is another important formal device that is quite important in the way that readers move through ‘Central Heating’. Reverdy did not choose to use rhyme or specific metrical patterns in the poem, but by choosing to cut the lines off at certain (sometimes uncomfortable or suspenseful) point he’s able to create rhythm. For example, the transition between lines one, two, and three of the first stanza.
In ‘Central Heating’ a close reader will also find several interesting examples of imagery. These examples engage the reader’s imagination and senses. For instance, the lines “Over there in the corner a shadow is busy reading / Her bare unencumbered feet are much much too pretty” from stanza one.
Analysis of Central Heating
A tiny light
Her bare unencumbered feet are much much too pretty
In the first stanza of ‘Central Heating,’ the speaker begins with a short, three-word line: “A tiny light”. This “tiny” light is mimicked by the tiny line in which it is described. This pinprick of light is originating from somewhere as of yet unknown. The words “A tiny light” are repeated in the second line but extended. Here, the speaker adds that it is coming down and “landing on your stomach”. The “you” mentioned here is the speaker’s lover.
It lands on the listener’s stomach and lights that person up. This is a beautifully surreal image that is meant to draw the reader into the poem and encourage them to see what comes next. It is also important to take note of the use of “you” in these lines. He could’ve referred to the lover through the use of a pronoun but chose not to. This allows the reader to imagine themselves in the lover’s place, experiencing everything they do.
The dashes in the second line of this stanza are interesting. They mark it out for the reader, making sure it’s obvious that this phrase is a side note, it’s almost like a stage direction. She’s glowing with light all through her body.
The poet moves on to talk about another woman in the corner reading. This is almost personification, but as the lines progress it becomes clear that it’s closer to a metaphor. He’s describing the woman as a “shadow”. He also uses repetition to describe her feet as “much much too pretty”. This beautifully simple use of repetition easily conveys the speaker’s mindset.
Short-circuit in the heart-system
My eyes and my love are both taking the same wrong road
The second stanza is only four lines long. In it, the speaker refers directly to the “heat-system” relating to the title of the poem. Something has gone wrong, there’s been “Short-circuit”. It is with these lines that the central extended metaphor of the poem starts to take hold. The heating system is used as a metaphor for the human body as it experiences love.
Reverdy’s speaker is overwhelmed by the emotions he’s experiencing. He wonders how he could possibly still be running, some electromagnet must be keeping him alive. The “magnet” at his center is drawing him towards other “magnets”. It is the power of attraction.
The last line of this stanza moves away from the magnet imagery and to a depiction of his “eyes and [his] love” taking the “same wrong road”. This interesting example of figurative language could be considered the speaker’s way of saying that he’s gone down the wrong path. His desire, (as depicted through his “eyes” or his lust) have taken him in the wrong direction. Perhaps, he is interested in the wrong woman but that’s not completely clear.
A mere nothing
I see your face but lack all faith in it
The third stanza of ‘Central Heating’ is by far the longest. There are some good examples of anaphora in the first lines of the stanza as the poet repeats the words “A” and “I’ve” at the start of multiple lines. As is Reverdy’s style, the poem jumps again, transitioning into the image of a “mere nothing, a “spark” that is created only to “let it go out” later on. The “they” in these lines is quite mysterious. The poet does not reveal who his speaker is considering in these lines, but readers should feel slightly off-balance as if something is not quite right. The world, the speaker is suggesting is life is like a spark that’s lit and then blown out.
The lines which follow feel powerfully emotional. He’s letting out his frustration with the world and declares that everything “visible is artificial”. This is even the case for his lover’s “mouth”. He’s tired of reality and tired of dealing with the fact that nothing is what it seems to be. Despite how he feels when she touches him, he knows that her touch is also artificial, as is the way he feels.
His opinion of the world is making it hard for him to walk through the open door. It’s there, but he refuses to enter. Her “face” is on the other side but he doesn’t have enough faith in the reality of life to commit to it.
You’re so pale
Copper wire conducts the light
The sun and your heart are compacted of the same substance
He continues on, describing his lover as “so pale”. Perhaps this connects back to the “shadow” in the first stanza or maybe his lover is ill, even near death. It also adds to the speaker’s perception of everything as fake/artificial in some way.
Unlike the previous lines, line eleven of the third stanza feels real. It’s clear that the speaker experiences it that way as well. He remembers one night when they were “unhappy” and sat together “on a trunk”. They could hear the world moving on around them. There is joy in the world, but they aren’t taking part in it.
In the third to last line of the poem, he brings in images of water. Here, he thinks about the “perfect purity” (alliteration) of water. This is a common image, one that often features in more pastoral poems. But, in this one, it is especially poignant as it follows the speaker’s determined assertion that nothing is real.
The “Copper wire” of the second to the last line returns the poem to its heating metaphor. It is the conductor of heat. The line is enjambed into the final line of the poem which describes the “sun” and the lover’s heart as “compacted of the same substance”. These beautifully romantic lines compare his lover’s heart to the sun, they are the same in every important way. Readers should not forget that the speaker spent much of the poem declaring that nothing is real. He thinks that he could be changed/warmed bytes woman but he isn’t sure. He’s concerned by the artificiality and temporary nature of the world.
Readers who find themselves moved by ‘Central Heating’ should also look to the French surrealist writers who are even better known than Reverdy is. Guillaume Apollinaire and Andre Breton are two great examples. Poems like ‘Zone’ and ‘It’s Raining’ by Guillaume Apollinaire are great examples of the originality of the surrealists. There are other poems, such as ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ by Edgar Allan Poe and ‘Dream Song 29’ by John Berryman