The Great Fires

By Jack Gilbert


The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert

“The Great Fires” by Jack Gilbert is a poignant exploration of love, loss, and survival. Gilbert, known for his clear and powerful emotional expression, crafts this poem with a depth that both challenges and engages his readers. Set against the backdrop of personal tragedy, including the loss of his wife, this work reflects on the enduring nature of human emotion and resilience. As a contemporary American poet, Gilbert’s style blends simplicity with profound insights, making his work accessible yet deeply moving. 📜✨

Meaning of The Great Fires

Opening section

The poem begins with a reflective tone, setting the stage for a deep dive into personal and universal themes. Gilbert speaks of love as an enduring flame, suggesting that great passions continue to shape us even after they have burned out. For instance, the lines “Love remains a supper at a long table…” evoke a sense of ongoing presence and memory.

Mid section

In the middle of the poem, Gilbert shifts to the impact of loss and the coping mechanisms one might adopt. Here, he explores how life’s profound losses embed themselves in the minutiae of daily life, with imagery that captures the blend of the everyday and the extraordinary. A poignant verse from this section: “We learn by going where we have to go.”

Concluding section

The concluding part of the poem deals with the aftermath of passion and grief, suggesting a reconciliation with the past and a tempered peace with the impermanence of life. Gilbert uses the imagery of nature and seasons to symbolize cycles of life, healing, and renewal, concluding with a meditation on the transformation wrought by great emotional fires.

In-depth Analysis

Stanza by Stanza Dissection

Stanza One: Gilbert sets a reflective, almost somber tone. The choice of simple, yet evocative language like “supper at a long table” juxtaposes the communal with personal solitude.

Stanza Two: The use of cold imagery (“the icy nights”) contrasts with the warmth of remembered loves, symbolizing the emotional contrasts we navigate in memory and mourning.

Stanza Three: Here, Gilbert speaks to the continuity of life — “the wind turning pages” — suggesting that life’s stories are part of a larger narrative, beyond individual control yet intimately personal.

Themes and Symbols:

  • Love and Loss: Central themes explored through vivid, often stark imagery.
  • Nature: Symbolizes cycles of life and renewal.
  • Fire: Represents both destructive and cleansing forces.

Figurative Language:

  • Metaphor: Life experiences are compared to natural elements, emphasizing their pervasive and uncontrollable impact.
  • Simile: Memories are likened to meals, suggesting sustenance and necessity.

Syntax and Diction: Gilbert’s use of short, declarative sentences punctuates the emotional weight of the themes, while his precise diction enhances the clarity and impact of each image.

Poetic Devices used in The Great Fires

Metaphor“Love remains a supper at a long table.”
Simile“Memories are like meals.”
Alliteration“Silent, sitting by the window.”
Assonance“Icy nights fold quietly around us.”
Personification“The wind reads aloud.”
Hyperbole“Endless evenings of the eternal mind.”
AnaphoraRepeated use of “We remember” in successive lines.
EnjambmentBreaks between lines to emphasize a continual flow of thoughts.
Oxymoron“Frozen fire.”
AllusionReferences to classical themes of epic journeys.

The Great Fires – FAQs

Q: What is the main theme of ‘The Great Fires’ by Jack Gilbert?
A: The main theme revolves around the enduring impact of love and the personal transformation through grief and loss.

Q: How does Jack Gilbert use imagery in the poem?
A: Gilbert uses vivid imagery related to nature and daily life to express complex emotions and thoughts about love, loss, and recovery.

Q: Can ‘The Great Fires’ be considered a sonnet?
A: No, ‘The Great Fires’ does not conform to the traditional structures of a sonnet, which typically includes 14 lines and a specific rhyme scheme.

Q: What poetic devices are prominent in Gilbert’s poem?
A: Metaphors, similes, and personification are heavily used to deepen the emotional and thematic layers of the poem.

Q: What literary era does Jack Gilbert belong to?
A: Jack Gilbert is often associated with the contemporary era of American poetry, known for his clear, insightful, and emotionally potent style.

Q: What is the significance of the title ‘The Great Fires’?
A: The title suggests both destruction and renewal, emblematic of how intense experiences (like love and loss) can devastate but also cleanse and reshape our lives.

Q: How can ‘The Great Fires’ be used to teach poetry analysis?
A: This poem is ideal for teaching analysis because it employs a variety of poetic devices and themes that are accessible yet rich in depth. Students can explore how Gilbert uses language to weave complex emotional and thematic narratives.

Q: Are there any critical essays on ‘The Great Fires’ by Jack Gilbert?
A: While specific essays on “The Great Fires” might not be as numerous as for other poems, scholarly articles on Jack Gilbert’s broader work often provide insights into his themes and styles, which can be applicable to this poem.

The Great Fires Study Guide

List all the devices used in this verse:

“Love remains a supper at a long table,
the children gone, their toys scattered like wreckage,
the dog whining and sniffing at the corners of the room.”


  • Metaphor: Love described as “a supper at a long table.”
  • Simile: Toys scattered “like wreckage.”
  • Personification: The dog “whining and sniffing” as if searching for lost remnants of the past.