This Stephen Crane poem has two obvious virtues with respect to its use here. First, it is in the public domain. Second, it is incredibly short. So here is the poem in its entirety:
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."
This poem is a parable. That is, it tells a story to reveal some kind of truth or lesson. The story is simple: the speaker tells of his encounter with a creature eating his own heart, and the conversation that follows: a simple question and the creature's short but complex answer.
But if the poem is a parable, what is the truth or moral lesson? Are we supposed to see ourselves in the creature? Are we supposed to see ourselves in the speaker? And what is it we are asked to see?
The speaker doesn't say whether the being he encounters is even human. The speaker remarks on the creature's nakedness and his bestial nature. The speaker says the creature was "squatting on the ground," which must have struck the speaker as unusual posture, since he remarked on it.
And the speaker finds the creature in a desert--a place devoid of cultivation (no green pastures here) or civilization (no cities, either).
All of this puts some distance between the creature and the speaker. And yet, they can converse with one another. And what are we to make of the speaker calling him "friend"? Does this mean the speaker recognizes a common kinship with the beast? Or is the speaker drawing a line between them, asserting that he is a more civilized, less brutish being (not combative, but coming in peace)?
It's probably a bit of each, as they share enough in common to communicate. But the speaker is the storyteller, the one who enters into the desert only temporarily, and who is not normally naked or bestial or squatting, and who has never tasted his own heart. The speaker is the urbane, educated, peaceful version of the species.
But the speaker has questions. Or at least one question: Is it good? The creature--beast that he is--still has the capacity to understand the question can be interpreted in multiple ways, and so he answers multiple questions. It tastes bitter, he says. So, in that sense, no, it isn't good. But he still likes it--both for its bitter taste and for it being his own. So in that sense, is it good?
Maybe not. Maybe it's just the fallen nature of the creature that causes his heart to be bitter in the first place, and for him to like it nevertheless, being unwilling to let go of it and choose something else. It is his. He is it. And the creature wallows in his own bitterness.
So do we conclude that all people are beasts who squat naked in the desert, feasting on their own bitterness? Or do we conclude that only the unwashed hoi polloi do so?
When the speaker recounts the story, he uses one odd turn of phrase, "And ate of it." To my ear, this sounds biblical, and invokes the Genesis story. And a heart is very much the size (and color) of an apple. So perhaps we are to see that as an echo--or the consequence--of The Fall.
And perhaps in asking his question, the speaker is claiming to be untainted by it, still blissful in his ignorance, even as he seems to be the more intelligent of the two. Or is he? After all, the creature sees the layers in the question, even as he is squatting in the dirt. So perhaps Crane is showing us that for all our civilization seems to insulate us from uncomfortable truths, they are truths nevertheless. And only this creature (much like Frankenstein's monster) is the truly insightful one here.
Another reason I offer you this enigmatic poem because it's one you can memorize. There aren't many words, and none of them are difficult. So use this to amaze your friends and show them your edgy side.
Oh, and if for no other reason, you should know this poem because it provides the title for a Joyce Carol Oates novel (Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, 1990)
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