‘In Heaven’ presents a parable-like narrative with the purpose of demonstrating two qualities of human nature — pride and humility — in relation to piety. Crane uses the unassuming image of blades of grass to symbolize a group of people newly arrived in heaven, juxtaposing their vastly different responses to a question posed by the deity they encounter there in order to reveal their respective hypocrisy and grace.
Ever the critic of organized religion and suspicious of the vociferously sanctimonious, Crane’s poem exposes the shocking ease with which humans appear to forget the core tenets of their supposed faith, simultaneously echoing ideals espoused in Christian parables.
In Heaven Stephen CraneXVIIIIn Heaven,Some little blades of grassStood before God."What did you do?"Then all save one of the little bladesBegan eagerly to relateThe merits of their lives.This one stayed a small way behindAshamed.Presently God said:"And what did you do?"The little blade answered: "Oh, my lord,"Memory is bitter to me"For if I did good deeds"I know not of them."Then God in all His splendorArose from His throne."Oh, best little blade of grass," He said.
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'In Heaven' by Stephen Crane reveals the reflexively prideful nature of humans (the hypocritically pious in particular) while also praising those who express humility rather than hubris.
The parable at the center of ‘In Heaven’ centers on a few blades of grass that find themselves, as the title suggests, in heaven before the throne of “God.” It’s here that they’re all asked an intentionally vague question about their deeds in life.
Every blade of grass present except one is more than delighted to give a laundry list of their successes and accomplishments. Ignoring the others, “God” poses the same question, this time directly asking the blade of grass that stands apart from the rest, looking ashamed.
They answer that their memory is unkind as they cannot recall a single good deed they were responsible for while alive. At this answer, “God” rises and declares the blade of grass as the “best” because of their humbling response.
Structure and Form
‘In Heaven’ is composed of eighteen lines with no definite meter or rhyme scheme. It’s written in free verse, and its lines contain examples of enjambment and end-stops.
‘In Heaven’ mimics both the narrative structure and style of biblical parables. Crane uses the “little blades of grass” as symbols for people, emphasizing both their abundance and minuteness. It could also be viewed as a biblical allusion to God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants “as numerous as the sands along the seashore — too many to count” (Genesis 32:12).
But the fact that they’re still referred to as “grass” also makes Crane’s use an example of personification, along with the phrase “Memory is bitter to me” (13). There’s also plenty of imagery: auditory, as exemplified in both the dialogue and the boastful blades of grass that “began eagerly to relate” (6); visual, as in describing the meekness of the blade of grass which “stayed a small way behind / Ashamed” (8-9) and when “God in all His splendor / Arose from His throne” (16-17).
Some little blades of grass
Stood before God.
“What did you do?”
Then all save one of the little blades
Began eagerly to relate
The merits of their lives.
This one stayed a small way behind
Within the first nine lines of ‘In Heaven,‘ the speaker narrates an anecdote that greatly resembles and intentionally alludes to a religious parable. The first half of the story introduces a group of “little blades of grass” that find themselves standing before “God” (2-3). They’re then asked a singular question — “What did you do?” (4) — which causes the group to immediately start listing off all the “merits of their lives.” (7). But one of the blades of grass doesn’t join the others in their vaunting. In contrast, this blade of grass not only shies away from the limelight but also appears “ashamed” (9), according to the speaker.
The speaker uses personification to give the blades of grass human characteristics — but why blades of grass? One interpretation of the symbolism might focus on the innumerable abundance of grass on the planet (although vastly larger than the number of living human beings) is comparable when referring to every person who has ever lived and died. Likewise, using blades of grass as stand-ins for humans emphasizes a mortal thing’s meekness in the eyes of “God.”
As the juxtaposed images of the blades, which “eagerly relate” (6) their perceived accomplishments and the one who stays silent “a small way behind” (8) might suggest, the contrasting feelings of pride and humility are two important themes in the poem.
Presently God said:
“And what did you do?”
The little blade answered: “Oh, my lord,
“Memory is bitter to me
“For if I did good deeds
“I know not of them.”
Then God in all His splendor
Arose from His throne.
“Oh, best little blade of grass,” He said.
The last nine lines of ‘In Heaven‘ serve as the resolution of the speaker’s parable. Seemingly ignoring the answers given by the other blades of grass, “God” addresses the one blade of grass that remained silent at the end of the previous sequence. “And what did you do?” (11) they ask. In response, the singled-out blade of grass gives an answer that’s far less boastful than their companions: “For if I did good deeds / I know not of them” (14-15).
This explains why the blade of grass was described as ashamed in a previous line, as they felt nothing done in life was worthy of recollection before “God.” But then that very same deity rises from their throne and proclaims affectionately: “Oh, best little blade of grass” (18).
Given the way “God” refuses to acknowledge the answers initially given by the other blades of grass present, it can be inferred that they were less than ideal. The answer given by the remaining blade is also exceptionally telling as they display a grace and humility that the others clearly lack. Unlike them, their ego isn’t so large that they have an ostensibly premeditated list of answers to such a question. But more than that, this humble blade of grass isn’t even sure they’ve done anything worth noting as good. It’s not that the blade of grass is unsure if they’ve ever done anything morally correct in their life.
Rather, their choice of words underscores an unwillingness to even label their actions as “good” out of fear that even that is an arrogant assumption. This sincere display of modesty turns out to be exactly the answer “God” was fishing for and echoes several bible verses that voice a similar theme: “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation” (Psalm 149:4); “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12); “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).
The poem’s theme centers on the necessity of humility as opposed to pride. The speaker echoes biblical parables in their caution against being too self-righteous and sanctimonious, as these are both problematic traits that distract from the true reasons someone should be doing good work in the first place.
Crane substitutes blades of grass for people in their poem. The symbolism helps accentuate the infinite meekness of humans in comparison to the Catholic/Christian deity. It also places humankind on equal footing with other elements of our planet, reinforcing the poem’s theme that egoism isn’t an ideal trait for those who believe themselves pious.
Crane was constantly pointing out and criticizing the hypocrisies exhibited within organized religions. His poem mimics the style of the kinds of parables the religious would no doubt be familiar with and uses it as a way to cuttingly remind people he saw as hypocrites that even if all goes according to their specific faith — i.e., heaven exists, and they spend the afterlife there — such an attitude will be far from praised by the Almighty.
Here are a few similar poems, including two poems by Stephen Crane:
- ‘In the Desert’ – is a deeply poignant poem that laments the destructive potential of human nature.
- ‘War is Kind’ – is a bitterly sarcastic and ironic poem that details the ways war annihilates the world, body, and spirit.
- ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ by Wilfred Owen – is another poem that adopts the style of parable and gives a retelling of Isaac and Abraham.