'In The Desert' by Stephen Crane

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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."

Editor 1 Interpretation

In The Desert: A Poem of Desolation and Death

When we think of the American West, our minds often conjure up images of cowboys, saloons, and wide-open spaces. But for Stephen Crane, the West was a land of desolation and death, a place where human beings were pitted against the harsh forces of nature and often came up short. His haunting poem "In The Desert" is a perfect summation of this bleak view of the West, a meditation on the futility of human struggle in the face of overwhelming emptiness.

The Poem's Opening

The poem opens with a stark image: "In the desert / I saw a creature, naked, bestial, / Who, squatting upon the ground, / Held his heart in his hands." Right away, we know that we are not in a happy-go-lucky world. The creature is "naked" and "bestial," stripped of all pretense of civilization. And he is holding his heart in his hands, a gesture that is both grotesque and poignant. What does it mean to "hold one's heart in one's hands"? Is the creature offering it up to the gods? Examining it for signs of disease? Or is he simply trying to keep it from breaking apart inside his chest?

The Poem's Depiction of the Desert

The creature is in the desert, and the poem goes on to describe this landscape in vivid detail. We see "the pitiless blue sky / Stretching like a great blank nothing / Over the sand and the twisted juniper." The sky is "pitiless," as if it knows the suffering of the creature below but does nothing to alleviate it. And it is "blank" and "nothing," suggesting that the universe is a vast, empty void in which human beings are mere specks.

The Poem's Exploration of Isolation

This sense of isolation is a key theme of the poem. The creature is alone in the desert, and there is no one to help him or offer him comfort. We can imagine him as a castaway on a desert island, but without the hope of rescue. "Not a blade of grass, / Not a speck of moss— / Only sand, / Oozing and slipping / Under the creature's feet / As he rooted about / Like a wild pig, / Eating / Juniper berries." The desert is a place of utter desolation, where even the most basic forms of life struggle to survive.

The Poem's Exploration of Death

The poem also deals with the theme of death. The creature is naked and bestial, but he is still human, and so we feel a sense of despair as we watch him hold his heart in his hands. Has he died of a broken heart? Is he contemplating suicide? Or is he simply trying to understand why he is alive in such a hostile universe? "I thought to myself: / This is the desert / Where death flies swiftly / In the noonday sun." The desert is a place of death, where life is fleeting and fragile.

The Poem's Exploration of Despair

But the poem is not just about death; it is also about despair. The creature is not just holding his heart in his hands; he is also "smiling horribly." This is a chilling image, suggesting that the creature has given up all hope and is resigned to his fate. And yet, even in the midst of this horror, there is a kind of beauty. The poem's language is spare and simple, but it is also evocative, conjuring up images of sand, sky, and juniper berries that are both bleak and mesmerizing.

The Poem's Exploration of Existentialism

In many ways, "In The Desert" can be read as an existentialist poem. Like Camus, Sartre, and other existentialist writers, Crane is concerned with the fundamental question of human existence: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? And like these writers, he comes to a bleak conclusion: there is no inherent meaning in life. We are alone in the universe, and our struggles are ultimately futile. "Then I went on, / And I saw the naked man, / Standing, standing, / In the merciless sun, / Bruised, swollen, / And silent." The creature is still alive, but he is no longer holding his heart in his hands. Perhaps he has come to accept his fate, or perhaps he has simply given up. Either way, the poem leaves us with a sense of overwhelming despair.


"In The Desert" is a haunting poem that captures the bleakness and futility of life in the American West. Through its spare language and vivid imagery, it explores themes of isolation, death, and despair, painting a picture of a universe in which human beings are powerless against the forces of nature. And yet, even in the midst of this horror, there is a kind of beauty. The poem's starkness is also its strength, allowing us to confront the fundamental questions of human existence without flinching. For this reason, "In The Desert" remains a classic of American literature, a meditation on the human condition that is as relevant today as it was when it was first written.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry In The Desert: A Masterpiece of Imagery and Symbolism

Stephen Crane's "Poetry In The Desert" is a masterpiece of imagery and symbolism that captures the essence of the human experience in a barren and unforgiving landscape. The poem is a vivid depiction of the harsh realities of life in the desert, where the sun beats down relentlessly and the sand stretches out endlessly in all directions. Yet, despite the harshness of the environment, Crane finds beauty and meaning in the desert, and his words evoke a sense of wonder and awe in the reader.

The poem begins with a description of the desert as a place of "burning sand" and "blazing sun," where "the sky is like a molten brass." This opening stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem, establishing the harshness and intensity of the desert environment. The use of vivid imagery, such as "molten brass," creates a sense of heat and intensity that is almost palpable, drawing the reader into the world of the poem.

As the poem progresses, Crane introduces a series of symbols that serve to deepen the meaning of the work. One of the most prominent of these symbols is the image of the "lone palm tree," which stands as a solitary sentinel in the midst of the desert. The palm tree is a powerful symbol of resilience and endurance, representing the ability of life to survive and thrive even in the most inhospitable of environments. The fact that the tree is "lone" also suggests a sense of isolation and loneliness, highlighting the harshness of the desert landscape.

Another important symbol in the poem is the image of the "wandering tribes," who move through the desert in search of water and sustenance. The tribes represent the human struggle for survival in the face of adversity, and their constant movement suggests a sense of restlessness and uncertainty. Yet, despite their hardships, the tribes are able to find beauty and meaning in the desert, as evidenced by their creation of "songs of love and death."

The use of language in the poem is also noteworthy, as Crane employs a range of poetic devices to create a sense of rhythm and flow. The repetition of certain phrases, such as "burning sand" and "blazing sun," creates a sense of intensity and urgency, while the use of alliteration and assonance adds a musical quality to the work. The poem is also notable for its use of enjambment, which allows the lines to flow seamlessly into one another, creating a sense of continuity and fluidity.

At its core, "Poetry In The Desert" is a meditation on the human experience, and the ways in which we find meaning and beauty in the face of adversity. Crane's use of vivid imagery and powerful symbolism creates a sense of wonder and awe in the reader, drawing us into the world of the poem and inviting us to contemplate the deeper meanings behind its words. The poem is a testament to the power of language and the human spirit, and a reminder that even in the harshest of environments, there is always the possibility of finding beauty and meaning in the world around us.

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