Study Guide

The Black Heralds

The Black Heralds Summary

The poem opens and closes with the same line about how crappy life can be and how the poetic speaker doesn't know how to explain it.

Then it goes on to compare life's disappointments to a series of religious images, which gives off the idea that the speaker is a little bit mad at God for letting bad things happen.

Finally the poem winds up with an image of a man crying over all the pain that he's lived through, and the repetition of "I don't know."

  • Stanza 1

    Line 1

    There are blows in life, so powerful…I don't know!

    • This first line, one of the most important lines in modern poetry, is the speaker complaining about how life is tough, and ends up with the frustrating expression of frustration: "I don't know!" 
    • The punctuation tells you how to read the poem. The ellipsis (…) trails off, and then the exclamation point gives the line a burst of force at the end, kind of like the powerful blows the line mentions.
    • By the way, "blows" is used here in the sense of a hostile strike or punch—it should inspire physical pain. Ouch!

    Lines 2-4

    Blows as from the hatred of God; as if, facing them,
    the undertow of everything suffered
    welled up in the soul…I don't know!

    • These lines expand on the blows from Line 1. Here we find out where they come from: the hatred of God. Yowza. This is an example of a simile, where the blows are compared to God's hatred. If you thought most religious poetry was about God's love and redemption, this is not one of those kind of poems.
    • The lines compare suffering to water—an undertow, welling up—in a metaphor. And this water is powerful—the undertow is what takes you a little bit further past the surf than you might want to go (try not to think about Lost or Jaws). DA-dum…DA-dum…. Pay attention to that suffering welling up in the soul—it might come back to haunt us in a few lines.
    • And then there's the repetition of the "…I don't know!" phrase. What is the effect of repeating this declaration of ignorance, over and over? Perhaps this phrase gives us a sense of the desperation the speaker is feeling. And the pause that the ellipsis gives us makes us feel like that not-knowing is really weighing on the speaker.
    • Don't believe us? Go ahead and read it aloud. If you describe suffering, then you pause before saying "I don't know!," it gives the not-knowing a much more desperate feel than just cheerfully tacking it onto the end of the sentence, like "I don't know! Whatevs! Let's just get a Frappuccino."
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 5-6

    They are few; but they are…. They open dark trenches
    in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.

    • These lines are still about the "blows." Here the speaker compares them to a plow opening up trenches, or maybe a whip that leaves marks on people's bodies. This might make you think of slavery, or, for a more religious angle, self-flagellation (where folks whip themselves to emulate Jesus' suffering). Heck, it might remind you even of Jesus Christ himself, being beaten on his way to the cross. This religious symbolism is going to get stronger really soon, in case you think it sounds kind of out-of-left-field.
    • Also notice the alliteration in line 6: "fiercest face." When you repeat an /f/ sound, you have to force (there it is again!) air out through your teeth and lips, like a puff of wind, or a gob of spit. Either way it's a forceful expulsion, kind of the kind you might associate with God raining his hatred down on humanity.
    • Finally, these lines contain synecdoche too, using a part to represent a whole (like "all hands on deck"). In this case, the speaker mentions dark trenches in a face and a back, but that's not what's literally meant. The face and back are just parts that are used to represent the whole person. Those dark trenches, then, become more profound than just physical scars. They weigh on the whole person. Bummer!

    Lines 7-8

    Perhaps they are the colts of barbaric Attilas;
    or the black heralds sent to us by Death.

    • Here the speaker starts to ponder what the blows might be, instead of just describing them. They might be the colts of Atilla the Hun, which brings to mind a super-scary warrior coming to wipe you out. Eek.
    • If that image isn't freaky enough, how about some black heralds, or messengers, sent by Death? Sound fun? So all of our suffering throughout life is just little reminders that "Hey, you're going to die someday!" 
    • These lines use metaphor to compare suffering to the colts or the heralds, and these active, moving images give us the feeling that suffering is not a passive thing—it's coming for us.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 9-10

    They are the deep falls of the Christs of the soul,
    of some adored faith blasphemed by Destiny.

    • Here is that religious imagery that we mentioned earlier. Now the Christs (notice the plural) are falling. This is a really wild image, so let's break it down.
    • First off, what are the "Christs of the soul"? They could refer to Jesus Christ (in fact, they do refer to Jesus Christ in an allusion), but that pesky "s" at the end makes them plural. So that clues us in that the poet is getting after something more than the historical and religious figure. 
    • The "Christs of the soul" are probably figurative—they probably stand in for whatever we believe in, whether it's Big Macs or our big brother. Anything we might have faith in could be considered a Christ of the soul. 
    • Apparently, though, they have gravity issues. So, why do they fall? Well, in Catholic tradition, on his way to be crucified, Jesus Christ stumbled and fell three times. This is the person who was claiming to be the Son of God, and now he was being beaten and humiliated, falling on his way to be executed. That's a "deep fall" if we've ever heard of one. 
    • So the "deep falls of the Christs of the soul" can be seen as things we hold dear, but are being knocked off their pedestals. Maybe someone who idolizes their father and finds out he was actually a liar and a cheat would feel like someone who lost their faith. Maybe someone who believed that being good and honest was the way to go, but who ends up being punished for their honesty, might feel this way. 
    • Those deep falls are about the painful process of going through life with faith, but inevitably being disappointed.
    • Destiny really seems to be the enemy here. We mean, it blasphemes faith for cryin' out loud. This is kind of an interesting turn. Usually it's humans who blaspheme against God, but in this case Destiny is blaspheming against faith. It's like real life won't let us have faith, because it just keeps knocking it down.
    • See the "Allusions" section for more on this religious imagery.

    Lines 11-12

    Those bloodstained blows are the crackling of
    bread burning up at the oven door.

    • The blows are back, and this time they're covered in blood. Um, ew.
    • So, up to here we've gotten images of suffering and disappointment, and suddenly we get hit with the metaphor of…a loaf of bread? What's up with that?
    • Well, imagine if you will:
    • You're hungry at the end of the day and can't wait for that fresh-baked loaf that's just about to come out of the oven. Just when you're pulling it out of the door it…burns. Womp womp. That is just the kind of disappointment the poem is talking about, but on a tiny, everyday scale.
    • Also, don't forget how important bread is to Christianity, since we've had all these Jesus images. The communion in Christian churches is about sharing bread, representing Christ's body, and here that bread, where all the hope is, gets burnt at the last second. Major bummer.
    • Check out the alliteration of the letter B here. See "Sound Check" for our take on all those b-words.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 13-16

    And man…. Poor…poor! He turns his eyes, as
    when a slap on the shoulder summons us;
    turns his crazed eyes, and everything lived
    wells up, like a pool of guilt, in his look.

    • Bringing it on home, all the suffering we've been getting in doses of metaphors is all slammed into one human package. The repetition of "poor" rubs it in. These lines describe a poor guy who turns and every single thing he's ever experienced "wells up" in his eyes. 
    • Once again, we've got some synecdoche going on here. The eyes have been called the window to the soul, but here they are a part, representing the whole of man. It's not like man has allergies, folks. The crazed eyes are meant to represent serious personal torment!
    • The consonance of the /s/ sound in line 14 sounds like a snake's hiss or maybe even the sound of the steam coming up off of the oven that burned that bread. See "Sound Check" for more on that.
    • This simile that compares the welling up in the eye to a pool of guilt is also part of a bigger metaphor that compares everything the man has ever lived or experienced to a tear welling up in his eye. 
    • The guilt is the tricky part in this stanza. Why would someone who seems to have suffered as much as this poor guy has be guilty? It is hard to say from these lines whether the man is a criminal, a murderer, an assassin, or someone who eats too much garlic. It could be the very condition of being human that makes him guilty.
    • This guilt is problematic, though, because up to here the poem has talked about suffering, and life dealing us a bad hand. Now we have to think about whether we deserve it. But isn't that what happens when bad things happen? Don't people often look for someone (as in, someone else) to blame? 
    • Think back to those "black heralds" from the previous stanza, sent to us by Death. In the poem, Death is like the mothership (a bit like the Death Star, if you will), and the black heralds and all the mean things they do in life are like the scouts (or tie fighters) sent out to explore. So if Death is behind all this suffering, and we want to know (even though the speaker says "I don't know!") where the suffering comes from, we would really have to figure out where Death comes from.
    • In the Christian religious tradition, death is usually understood as a result of the original sin—that moment when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were cast out of paradise. That sin, or that guilt (which will show up at the end of the poem) is what causes death and, therefore, suffering. 
    • And then there's always the idea of original sin, the Christian doctrine that says that all humans are born sinners, even though they're cute wittle babies, because they inherit it from Adam and Eve. Since this poem is full of other Christian references, it's probably safe to say that original sin has something to do with this "pool of guilt."
    • Do you need a tissue? This is getting sad.
  • Stanza 5

    Line 17

    There are blows in life, so powerful…I don't know!

    • The final line is a repetition of the first and, after all that depressing imagery, the fact that we still don't know what it's all for is even harder to take.
    • You might even say that this poem is like those blows in life—it's powerful stuff, even if it's powerfully depressing.