In the desert
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;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
— Stephen Crane
This short lyric poem is constructed of a single sentence comprising the first half of the piece, and the second half, a question, and an answer. The voice in the poem is speaking in the first person of a past encounter with a wild man in the desert, and then quotes for the reader the words that were spoken between them. It is short, very compact, and slightly ambiguous, so a close look at each line and the definition of contained words will help explore the meaning.
The first line establishes setting in the poem, but notice it is the desert and not a desert, so it must be inferred that the importance of the desert is greater than physical location. A desert is a barren place; barren has a wide range of meaning, empty in its most basic form, but also unable to produce fruit, much as a woman can also be barren. Deserts are thought of as isolated, and are associated with abandonment. The second line introduces the agent of our metaphor; naked means to be without cover, concealment, disguise, or embellishment and it’s associated with vulnerability; bestial is a variable word here because, depending on the reader, it can alter the meaning of the poem. Bestial means to be brutal or depraved, but also lacking intelligence or reason; one could even take it in its basest form, to be animal like, or sub-human, which would bring the poem closer to a man vs. man’s nature in the theme. Next, the subordinate clause of the first sentence, which makes up lines three through five. The creature is squatting on the ground which is not only animal-like in behavior, but creates an elevation difference that can be interpreted as symbolic, the creature being at the lowest depth of human capacity. Though he is called a creature he is holding his own heart in his hands, not claws or paws, and at the very beginning of line three is referred to as who, while the appropriate word would be which when referring to an animal. So, despite the animal like description, we get a sense of humanity from it, as though it used to be human at some point. The creature eats of his own heart. The word heart here can not simply mean the organ, despite that being the image. The heart is considered the emotional core of the body and soul, and the moral condition of the person is often referenced through describing the fictitious physical condition of it, such as black, bitter, shriveled or likewise made of gold. In line six, the speaker asks the creature if it (the heart) is good, and calls him friend. This line does two things, establishes that the creature can speak, solidifying its human quality, and removes the idea that the creature is threatening, which the strange and monstrous description in the first half created. Next, the creature answers, calling it bitter, a word meaning acrid taste that has evolved into a variety different emotional association, such as resentment, cynicism, sharply unpleasant, and difficult or painful to accept or bear. As Crane himself might say, here is the interesting part: the creature claims to like the taste of his heart, because it is bitter, and because it is his heart. We aren’t told why his heart is bitter, if it is innate or if it is because he is abandoned in a desert; both are sensible readings, hinged on whether you interpret the creature to represent mankind’s nature, or mankind’s discarded, social misfit, at the deepest depth of human suffering. The creature does not cry out, it simply responds, that the bitter heart is its own, as if he has no choice but to enjoy what he has become, feeding off of the bitterness that has been cultivated there.Works Cited