Throughout this short piece, the poet uses imagery to his advantage. He clearly relays the greed of the creature and the wonder of the speaker. One does nothing to impede the other. Instead, they communicate briefly as though they have an understanding. ’In the Desert’ has been subject to multiple interpretations, but most revolve around human nature.
In the Desert Stephen CraneIn 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.”
Explore In the Desert
‘In the Desert’ by Stephen Crane is a provocative and dark poem about greed, human nature, and self-destruction.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker comes upon a creature in the desert. He’s squatting on the ground with his half-eaten heart in his hands. Rather than try to stop the creature from engaging in this act of self-destruction, the speaker expresses wonder at the act and asks him whether or not his heart is good. The creature responds, saying it’s “bitter,” but he likes it because of this specific taste and because it’s his own heart. He’s taking joy, a greedy joy, from the act of consuming a part of himself.
Structure and Form
‘In the Desert’ by Stephen Crane is a two-stanza poem that is separated into one set of seven lines and one set of three lines. The poem does not follow a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This means that it is written in free verse. This is fitting for this particular poem due to its unusual and disconcerting subject matter. Without a pattern, readers will have no expectations as they move through the lines. Despite this, there are some examples of half-rhymes and exact rhymes in this piece. For instance, line five of the first stanza and line one of the second stanza use the same end word, “it.”
Throughout ‘In the Desert,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “Held,” “heart,” and “hands” in line four.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza one as well as lines one and two of stanza two.
- Repetition: can be seen when the poet repeats a word, phrase, idea, structure, or any other element of their writing. In this case, towards the end of the poem, the word “bitter” is used three times.
- Symbolism: this device allows the poet to imbue objects with meaning. In this case, the heart represents kindness, goodwill, and the better parts of human nature.
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;
In the first lines of ‘In the Desert,’ the speaker begins by using the line that later came to be used as the title. The speaker is in the desert when he finds a “creature, naked, bestial.” These are the only introductory words that the poet provides. There’s no information in regard to why the speaker was in the desert or what he was hoping to accomplish there. But, the fact that he finds this “creature” and the details of his conversation with it provides the reader with some information in regard to what’s going on.
The creature was “squatting” (a phrase that emphasizes his beast-like nature) and holding his heart in his hands. He was eating it, the speaker adds. This takes the poem into the realm of symbolism and metaphor. The speaker is on a journey of sorts, the reader can infer, through the desert. There, he finds this creature eating its own heart. When he speaks to him, he asks if it’s “good” to eat. He also calls the creature his “friend.” This implies that he feels some kinship with the creature. He’s able to relate to it in some critical way.
It’s after these lines that readers might start to consider whether or not the creature is real. Or if the creature is used as a symbol for something the speaker is discovering about himself out in the desert.
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
In the final three lines of the poem, the creature’s words are relayed to the reader. He had already described the heart as “bitter.” But now, he adds that he likes it because it’s bitter and because it’s his heart. The eating of one’s own heart is an act of self-destruction but also one, it seems, of self-understanding. By tasting it, the creature realizes the bitterness of his own experience and his own emotional connection to the world. He likes consuming it, a suggestion that the creature (standing in as a symbol for the speaker) is enjoying destroying his own life; he’s basking in it. There is also a greedy element to this poem. He’s consuming something critical but something he can’t help but take from himself.
The speaker does nothing to stop the man from eating his own heart. He stands back and wonders at the scene and asks a question instead. This is indicative of human nature and self-destructive behavior.
The tone is passive and descriptive. The speaker does not appear to be disturbed by what he’s seeing. Instead, he briefly questions it and describes the creature’s actions in simple terms.
The mood is confused, competitive, and perhaps disturbing. The reader might walk away from this piece bothered by what they’ve read or simply confused by the creature’s nature. But, undoubtedly, it’s clear that this poem speaks to human nature, particularly human greed.
Readers who enjoyed ‘In the Desert’ should also consider reading some more of Stephen Crane’s poetry. For example:
- ‘Fast Rode the Knight’ – a story of a zealous knight rushing into battle in order to rescue his lady.
- ‘War is Kind’ – describes war as “kind” and tells a woman and child not to cry in the face of death.
- ‘Three Little Birds in a Row’ – a simple poem that tries to convey a message in regard to how human beings treat one another.