Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The World of Ideas
Plato divides the universe into the physical world of things, and the spiritual or intellectual world of ideas. He used metaphors of shining light and the sun to talk about this higher world. Hass playfully mocks Plato’s metaphors in the beginning of the poem. Plato also feels that words represent the perfect idea of a thing, but Hass focuses on the sounds of words like "blackberry." Words don’t just represent things in the world, the poem seems to say, words actually are things.
- Lines 1-2: The speaker uses irony to show that the "new thinking" is pretty much the same as the "old thinking," and, so, it isn’t new at all. Although he says that the two kinds of thinking merely "resemble" one another, he means to connect them even more strongly.
- Lines 3-4: The idea of the "luminous clarity" of the "general idea" is an allusion to the Greek philosopher Plato.
- Lines 4-7: These lines continue the allusion to Plato’s philosophy of a "first world of undivided light," the world of ideas. The metaphor comparing ideas to light is actually one that Plato comes up with, not Hass.
- Lines 8-10: The sound word "blackberry" is compared using metaphor to the "bramble" of a blackberry bush. This poet is pointing out an example of onomatopoeia, where a word sounds like what it means. The word refers to the blackberry, and its sound is thick and tangled like a blackberry bush.
- Lines 14-16: There is a very faint metaphor in these lines. The word "dissolve" usually means for a substance to disappear in water. Sugar, for example, dissolves in water. But, here, the discussion of Platonic ideas has "dissolved" the reality of important concepts like "justice" and "woman."
- Lines 28-29: According to the "old thinking," word are "numinous," or spiritually divine, because they represent ideas. The speaker uses simile to compare the body’s spirituality to words.
The Pastoral World
"Pastoral" poems frequently depict cliché images of nature: fuzzy lambs, lush grass, cascading waterfalls, thatched-roof houses, and beautiful maidens. But, the images in this poem are very specific and realistic, like the "dead sculpted trunk" of the tree at Lagunitas. For the speaker, nature is the world of the particular, the mind is where ideas reside, and language is capable of bringing the two together. He treats words as natural events, and compares things in nature to words.
- Title: The title announces the setting of the poem at Lagunitas, a beautiful, rural area of northern California.
- Lines 4-6: The speaker uses intense nature imagery to create the sense that the woodpecker and the tree are unique, specific, and "particular" things. Although woodpeckers exist elsewhere, this "clown-faced woodpecker" – the one the speaker is looking at – exists only in one place at that moment.
- Line 10: The metaphor comparing the sound of the word "blackberry" to a bushy bramble reminds us of a real blackberry bush.
- Lines 20-23: The speaker’s desire for his "childhood river" is compared to a "thirst" using metaphor. It’s not just "like" a thirst, it is a thirst. Once again, the pastoral imagery is immediate and tense, letting us know we’re dealing with a "particular" thing and not a "general idea."
- Line 29: A metaphor compares pleasant days to the erotic satisfaction of "good flesh."
- Line 31: The poem fools us into thinking that it has ended on a pastoral image of blackberries, but the line’s beauty is in the repetition of the sound of the word, even more than in the image that it conjures.
Language isn’t just some flighty, abstract idea in this poem. It’s as real as a juicy blackberry or a "clown-faced woodpecker." For the Platonic philosophers, language is the means to access the higher world of ideas, but, for Hass, language is the means to access both nature and ideas. Notice how many words are put in italics throughout the poem. These italicized words are more than just words – they are symbols of how language works through both meaning and sound.
- Lines 3-4: Both the "particular" and the "general idea" can be expressed only through language. The particular takes away from, or "erases," the "luminous clarity" of ideas.
- Lines 10-11: The metaphor of line 10 compares the sound of the word "blackberry" to a real blackberry "bramble." When a word sounds like what it means, it’s known as onomatopoeia. In line 11, a word is called an "elegy," which is a kind of poem that is written in mourning of a person and a thing. Single words aren’t actually poems, so this is a metaphor.
- Line 13: In this metaphor, the "grief" of the friend’s voice is called a "thin wire."
- Lines 15-16: The meaning of the words in italics "dissolves" or disappears in the context of the overly philosophical discussion.
- Lines 28-29: Using simile, he compares the "numinous" or spiritual aspect of the body to the way that words refer to intellectual ideas.
- Lines 30-31: The sweet song of the word "blackberry" is a symbol of the tenderness of the "afternoons and evenings."
We know little about the woman, except for brief snippets of information about her small shoulders, her dreams, and her family history. More important, at least for the speaker, is how she brings to mind happy memories from his childhood, which is now behind him. Nonetheless, the imagery surrounding the woman is the emotional heart of the poem, and it leads the poet to the beautiful final lines.
- Line 18: The image of the woman’s "small shoulders" is all that we know about her physical appearance.
- Lines 19-20: The speaker uses metaphor to compare his "violent wonder" to a "thirst for salt." When people are dehydrated, they thirst for both water and salt. Although the body needs salt, it is bitter and not particularly tasty.
- Lines 26-28: The speaker provides more information about the woman, including the image of "the way her hands dismantled bread," which sounds slightly jarring.