Dear Mr. Vedder,
My name is Maryland Teacher. I'm a Maryland English Teacher.
On behalf of my three 8th grade classes, we have a story to share.
For the past three and a half years, I have included the lyrics to your song
"Black" as part of my Journey Through Genres unit. Initially, I
introduce "Black" as a poem. In the end of the Journeys Through
Genres unit, I ask the kids if they want to hear "Black" being "read,"
and I play your song. They always seem stunned when they realize that a
song is really nothing more than poetry married to rhythm.
I must admit that teaching "Black" is one of the highlights of my
year, and the kids love it, too. My students actually whined when I
took the lyrics back from them (too much to go over during a 45 minute
block of time). They wanted to know how the "poem" ended: I only
let them examine the song stanza by stanza, and we only got through the
first two stanzas during the first day. Never before have I seen them so
hungry for more. One promising young student even asked for a copy of
the lyrics. As a teacher, those moments are pure gold. It makes me
proud to be an educator.
When we review "Black," we treat it to literary analysis: we go
over Imagery, Metaphor, Mood, Tone, and Symbolism. In addition, we
examine the emotional temperature of the piece. The kids seemed to be
right-on-the-money with respect to the mood of "Black." They both
felt and appreciated the Narrator's pain as he laments the loss of a
Here's what we came up with.
Empty canvas and untouched sheets of clay suggest a void in the Narrator's life, contrasting the two aspects of his life. When she was in his life, the Narrator/artist was able to produce his work. Now that the relationship is over, he lacks the steam
required to continue his art. The words empty and untouched suggest a
barren, austere emotional climate. They illuminate potential that goes
empty and untouched.
Comparing the Antagonist to the sun suggests that she provides heat,
warmth, and life to the Narrator, the proper "earthen bed" required
to nourish and promote the flower of happiness, growth, and
self-actualization. In short, she was everything to him. She completed
him. This totality can be seen in the fact that the word everything is
repeated several times during the subsequent portions of the song. The
line, "Now the air I tasted and breathed, has taken a turn" sharply
marks Tone. It is the Narrator dropping his mask and speaking directly
to us about how he feels about his loss. Not only was she his sun, she
was the air that sustained him. And with the souring of the
relationship, so sours the air. With the souring of the air comes the
souring of the Narrator. He gasps for breath, choking on his situation.
This slow, emotional suffocation is mute testimony to the honesty of his
pain, his loss, and the slow fragmentation of his security. The
Narrator can no longer breathe without suffering, and every breath
haunts him. The fact that he is required to breathe this sour air is an
ever-present reminder of the Narrator's all-consuming pain.
When we reviewed the lines, "And all I taught her was everything / I
know she gave me all that she wore," a few students echoed some of my
private thoughts. Those lines read as if a young art professor had
fallen in love with one of his students. Several students from
different classes came up with that interpretation. The bitter hands
chafing is testimony to the Narrator rubbing his hands together in a
compulsive attempt to cope with his loss. The "washing" of the
pictures is a metaphor depicting the destruction of what was once a
beautiful relationship. The image of destroying a painting is a
powerful symbol showing how one feels when love decays. The loss of
that loved one feels like the destruction of a beautiful work of art.
The reference to a tattoo suggests that the Narrator's pain is
permanent. The pain is being compared to a tattoo's ink. Even though
that pain will fade/run over time, the Narrator feels that it will
always be there, just like a tattoo.
I feel that, "I take a walk outside / I"m surrounded by some kids
at play / I can feel their laughter, so why do I sear?" is one of the
most powerful lines in literary history. Those words capture the slow
burn endured by those who are haunted by the fading echoes of true love.
It's as if the pain is both amplified by and juxtaposed with the
reminder that everyone around the Narrator has permission to be happy,
yet he is condemned to what he sees as an eternity of suffering,
slow-roasting over the white-hot coals of what was, and taunted by what
will never be. The juxtaposition of beautiful laughter and paralytic
pain eclipses the Narrator's happiness, highlighting his angst all the
The 'twisted thoughts' can be thought of as the manic replaying of
what the Narrator could have done/should have done to salvage the
relationship, second-guessing himself and dooming himself to torturous
self-examination. This self-questioning erodes the Narrator's
stability, leaving him reeling from his efforts.
As the Antagonist is being compared to his sun, the line, "How quick
the sun can drop away" shows a bitter, clipped Tone, capturing the
sarcastic hemorrhage felt by the Narrator. The sun's dropping is
testimony to the fact that the relationship is over. Love's glow has
faded. In her absence, in the sun's absence, the image created is
that of a man trying to scratch out an existence in a bleak word devoid
of warmth, light, love, and hope. Trapped within the scattered ruins of his
own emotional wasteland, the Narrator feels that he is at risk of drying
out and shriveling up. The Narrator identifies with Sisyphus, condemned
to an eternity of rolling his emotional boulder up life's steep inclines.
If the antagonist can be referred to a precious glass statue, then the,
"...bitter hands that cradle broken glass...," shows how the Narrator
cannot heal, despite the end of the relationship. The image created is
that of a masochist who cannot release the sharp fragments of something
that was once dear to him, trapped within a vicious cycle of
self-injury: he holds love's broken pieces, and they lacerate him.
Going against both intuition and friends' sound advice, he hugs it
again, perpetuating the cycle of self-mutilation. The word cradle
suggests that the Narrator will pursue any hope, however fleeting, of
resuscitating the relationship. The fact that the relationship keeps
slicing him is as powerful as it is self-defeating.
When the Narrator's world turns to black, he bears his soul, naked to
the world. He allows the readers a rare glimpse into the true depth of
his woe. This hurt, this emotional tattoo, ruins all that he sees, all
that he is, and all that he will ever be. This pain is symbolized by
the tattoo. His pain is so pervasive that he sees this grief as having
amputated part of his future, pillorying the hope that tomorrow could
"Black" ends with a failed coup-de-grace. Unable to admit defeat
and move on, the Narrator cannot shake hands and walk away. While the
Narrator recognizes that the Antagonist will be the star in someone
else's sky, he laments that she will not be the star in his sky,
agonizing over the fact that it wasn't meant to be. "Why can't it
be mine?" eliminates any chance of moving on, uprooting any growth
made towards closure. Buried within the wasteland of his heart, the
Narrator cannot see that he cannot see beyond the immediacy of it all.
"Black" captures all the emptiness, all the ache, and all the doom
felt by most young people when they look back on their clumsy first
attempts at love. It is my opinion that "Black" is one of the most
powerful pieces of poetry in the textbook that is our world.
My 8th grade classes are deeply interested in knowing what inspired
"Black." From where did it come? From what? That, and they
just wanted thank the person who found a voice for those who had
previously suffered in silence.
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Dalai Lama—To say that humility is an essential ingredient in our pursuit of spiritual transformation may seem to be at odds with what I have said about the need for confidence. But there is clearly a distinction to be made between valid confidence or self-esteem, and conceit - which we can describe as an inflated sense of importance, grounded in a false image of self.