Burn Your House Down
While I was scanning our literature book in search of a poem that was to my liking, I came across William Carpenter?s ?Fire?. At first I thought that I should try to find a shorter poem to write a paper on, but I decided to go ahead and read it anyway. At first I began to smirk at the seemingly humorous actions and thoughts of the characters in the story, but soon the underlying theme became very clear. This poem expresses an overall idea that I immediately connected to: the idea that society is a blanket over reality and that we don?t need all of our precious material possessions to be happy.
The poem begins with the narrator looking across the Penobscot River. He is watching another man with gloves and a fur hat franticly setting fire to his house. The narrator claims to be envious of this other man working so hard to destroy everything precious to him, and so early in the day. He says
even begun, while my neighbor has already piled
spruce boughs against the house and poured
flammable liquids over them.?
The author stresses the quickness of the man burning down his house. It?s hard to tell why he?s in such a rush, but it is probably the hurriedness someone gets after being forced to snap under unbelievable pressure. The man watching says that he would like to help him or at least bring him coffee and a bagel, but then it occurs to him,
?why should I help him when I have a house
myself, which needs burning as much as anyone?s?
It has begun to leak. I think it has carpenter ants.
they aren?t writing, they are building small tubular
cities inside the walls.?
It?s almost funny that the ants are unknowingly making their ?natural? homes inside of the man?s ?unnatural? home.
It?s almost as though the author is trying to express the idea that the troubles that seem to be so concrete in everyday life are really very trivial. Of course he is not suggesting people go and burn down their houses, but instead he forces them to simply open their eyes. These problems would not occur if people would stick to the basics. If they would live off the land, life would be much more simple. This is what the man across the river has realized.
?I start burning the study,
working from within so it will go faster, so I can
catch up, and soon there?s a smoke column on either
side, like a couple of Algonquins having a dialogue
on how much harder it is to destroy than create.?
It?s clever the way the author brings these two men from other sides of the river together with one common idea, the realization of reality, the realization that people are here to simply live.
I burn everything, I can start over, with a future
His future is not predetermined. He doesn?t have to listen to the carpenter ants at night. He doesn?t have to wake up every morning to coffee and a bagel.
Just then while he is imagining his bright future, he looks across to his neighbor?s side of the river just to see the man spraying his burning house with a hose. He is weak. He cannot let go of his blanket. These cowardly actions don?t faze the narrator. He goes right on burning. He burns his stamps, his Berlioz collection, his photos of nude people, and his correspondence dating back to grade school.
The fire engines arrive at the weak man?s house and put out the flames, to the wife?s relief. The man then walks
?down to the shore to see the ruins
of the house across the river, the open cellar,
the charred timbers, the man laughing and singing
in the snow, who has been finally freed from his
possessions, who has no clothes, no library, who has
gone back to the beginning, when we lived in nature:
no refuge from the elements, no fixed address.?
In this poem you get a glimpse into the depth of William Carpenter?s sense of humor along with his sense of depth. He may tend to exaggerate the points he wishes to make but only to confront and challenge the reader?s values. Maybe we should all burn down our houses.