"Natura": Section IV from Treatise on Poetry.
When the gold paint peels from the arms of statues, When the letter falls out of the book of laws, Consciousness is naked as an eye. When the pages of books fall in fiery scraps On twisted metal and smashed leaves, The tree of good and evil is stripped bare.
The fourth section, which appears here, makes a startling leap. The war is over. The narrator is sitting in a boat on a lake in northern Pennsylvania, waiting for a vision from the books of his childhood: a hoped-for glimpse of the American beaver.
Some of the many cultural references in the poem are tracked in a new edition of Treatise which appeared recently in Poland accompanied by the author's own notes on the poem, forty years after the fact. They have been translated here for the interest of English-language readers.
A word on form: "Natura," after the first few lines, is written in a rather strict meter. The English equivalent would probably be a plain, regular, and forceful blank verse. The poem also breaks, three times and rather surprisingly, into more lyric forms: the small song "Inside the Rose"; "O City," a set of prophetic rhymed quatrains that carry echoes of the romantic and apocalyptic style of nineteenth-century Polish poetry; and an old-fashioned ode to the month of October which, in 1955-56, glints with multiple ironies, since October was in People's Poland the occasion for public celebrations of the Russian Revolution. To give some sense of the surprise of these forms, it would have been desirable to find English equivalents. But because their tone is so complex and because they have philosophical bearing in the poem, it also seemed desirable-throughout the poem-to hew fairly closely to the literal meaning, at least in this first English translation. We have tried to suggest, without being bound to, an English pentameter. And in the lyrics, we have for the most part taken Vladimir Nabokov's advice: "Better a crude word-for-word translation than the prettiest paraphrase."
Treatise on Poetry. IV: Natura The garden of Nature opens. The grass at the threshold is green. And an almond tree begins to bloom. Sunt mihi Acherontis propitii! Valeat numen triplex Jehovae! Ignis, aeris, aquae, terrae spiritus, Salvete! - says the entering guest. Ariel, though he lives in the palace of an apple tree, Will not appear, vibrating like a wasp's wing, And Mephistopheles, disguised as an abbot Of the Dominicans or Franciscans, Will not descend from a mulberry bush Onto a pentagram drawn in the black loam of the path. But a rhododendron walks among the rocks Shod in leathery leaves and ringing a pink bell. A hummingbird, a child's top in the air, Hovers in one spot, the beating heart of motion. Impaled on the nail of a black thorn, a grasshopper Sweats on a brown fluid from its twitching snout. And what can he do, the phantom-in-chief, As he's been called, more than a magician, The Socrates of snails, as he's been called, Musician of pears, arbiter of orioles, man? In sculptures and canvases our individuality Manages to survive. In nature it perishes. Let him accompany the coffin of the woodsman Pushed from a cliff by a mountain demon, The he-goat with a jutting curl of horn. Let him visit the graveyard of the whalers Who drove spears into the flesh of leviathan And looked for the secret in guts and blubber. The thrashing subsided, quieted to waves. Let him unroll the textbooks of alchemists Who almost found the cipher, thus the scepter. Then passed away without hands, eyes, or elixir. Here there is sun. And whoever, as a child, Believed he could break the repeatable pattern Of things, if only he understood the pattern, Is cast down, rots in the skin of others, Looks with wonder at the colors of the butterfly, Inexpressible, formed elsewhere, hostile to art. To keep the oars from squeaking in their locks, He binds them with a handkerchief. The dark Had rushed east from the Rocky Mountains And settled in the forests of the continent: Sky full of embers reflected in a cloud, Flights of herons, trees above a marsh, The dry stalks in water, livid, black. My boat Divides aerial utopias of the mosquitoes Which rebuild, instantly, their glowing castles A water lily sinks, fizzing, under the boat's bow. Now it is night only. The water is ash-gray. Play, musics, but inaudibly! I wait an hour In the silence, senses tuned to a beaver's lodge. Then suddenly, a crease in the water, a beast's Black moon, rounded, ploughing up quickly From the pond-dark, from the bubbling methanes. I am not immaterial and never will be. My scent in the air, my animal smell, Spreads, rainbow-like, scares the beaver, And the water laps. I remained where I was In the high, soft coffer of the night's velvet, Mastering what had come to my senses: How the four-toed paws worked, how the hair Shook off water in the muddy tunnel. It does not know time, hasn't heard of death, Is submitted to me because I know I'll die. I remember everything. That wedding in Basel, A touch to the strings of a viola and fruit In silver bowls. As was the custom in Savoy, An overturned cup for three pair of lips, And the wine spilled. The flames of the candles Wavery and frail in a breeze from the Rhine. Her fingers, bones shining through the skin, Felt out the hooks and clasps of the silk And the dress opened like a nutshell, Fell from the turned graininess of the belly. A chain for the neck rustled without epoch, In pits where the arms of various creeds Mingle with bird cries and the red hair of caesars. Perhaps this is only my own love speaking Beyond the seventh river. Grit of subjectivity, Obsession, bar the way to it. Until a window shutter, dogs in the cold garden, The whistle of a train, an owl in the firs Are spared the distortions of memory. And the grass says: how it was I don't know. Splash of a beaver in the American night. The memory grows larger than my life. A tin plate, dropped on the irregular red bricks Of a floor, rattles tinnily forever. Belinda of the big foot, Julia, Thais, The tufts of their sex shadowed by ribbon. Peace to the princesses under the tamarisks. Desert wind beats against their painted eyelids. Before the body was wrapped in bandolets, Before wheat fell asleep in the tomb, Before stone fell silent, and there was only pity. Yesterday a snake crossed the road at dusk. Crushed by a tire, it writhed on the asphalt. We are both the snake and the wheel. There are two dimensions. Here is the unattainable Truth of being, here, at the edge of lasting And not lasting. Where the parallel lines intersect, Time lifted above time by time. Before the butterfly and its color, he, numb, Formless, feels his fear, he, unattainable. For what is a butterfly without Julia and Thais? And what is Julia without a butterfly's down In her eyes, her hair, the smooth grain of her belly? The kingdom, you say. We do not belong to it, And still, in the same instant, we belong. For how long will a nonsensical Poland Where poets write of their emotions as if They were responsible only for their emotions Suffice? I want not poetry, but a new diction, Because it alone might allow us to express A new tenderness and save us from a law That is not our law, from necessity Which is not ours, even if we take its name. From broken armor, from eyes stricken By the command of time and taken back Into the jurisdiction of mold and fermentation, We draw our hope. Yes, to gather in an image The furriness of the beaver, the smell of rushes, And the wrinkles of a hand holding a pitcher From which wine trickles. Why cry out That a sense of history destroys our substance If it, precisely, is offered to our powers, A muse of our gray-haired father, Herodotus, As our arm and our instrument, though It is not easy to use it, to strengthen it So that, like a plumb with a pure gold center, It will serve again to rescue human beings. With such reflections I pushed a rowboat, In the middle of the continent, through tangled stalks, In my mind an image of the waves of two oceans And the slow rocking of a guard-ship's lantern. Aware that at this moment - and not only I - Keep, as in a seed, the unnamed future. And then a rhythmic appeal composed itself, Alien to the moth with its whirring of silk: O City, O Society, O Capital, You have revealed your steaming entrails. You will no longer be what you have been. Your songs no longer gratify our hearts. Steel, cement, lime law, ordinance, We have worshipped you too long, You were for us a goal and a defense, Ours was your glory and your shame. And where was the covenant broken? Was it in the fires of war, the incandescent sky? Or at twilight, as the towers fly past, when you looked From your train across a desert of tracks To a window out past the maneuvering locomotives Where a girl examines her narrow, moody face In a mirror and ties a ribbon to her hair Pierced by the sparks of curling papers? Those walls of yours are shadows of walls, And your light disappeared forever. Not the world's monument any more, an oeuvre of our own Stands beneath the sun in an altered space. From stucco and mirrors, glass and paintings, Tearing aside curtains of silver and cotton, Comes man, naked and mortal, Ready for truth, for speech, for wings. Lament, Republic! Fall to your knees! The loudspeaker's spell is discontinued. Listen! You can hear the clocks ticking. Your death approaches by his hand. An oar over my shoulder, I walked from the woods. A porcupine scolded from the fork of a tree, A horned owl, not changed by the century, Not changed by place or time, looked down. Bubo maximus, from the work of Linnaeus. America for me has the pelt of a raccoon. Its eyes are a raccoon's black binoculars. A chipmunk flickers in sediments of dry bark Where ivy and vines tangle in the red soil At the roots of an arcade of tulip trees. America's wings are the color of a cardinal, Its beak is half-open and a mockingbird trills From a leafy bush in the sweat-bath of the air. Its line is the wavy body of a water moccasin Crossing a river with a grass-like motion, A rattlesnake, a rubble of dots and speckles, Coiling under the bloom of a yucca tree. America is for me the illustrated version Of childhood tales about the heart of tanglewood, Told in the evening to the spinning wheel's hum. And a violin, shivvying up a square dance, Plays the fiddles of Lithuania or Flanders. My dancing partner's name is Birut Swenson. She married a Swede, but was born in Kaunas. Then from the night window a moth flies in As big as the joined palms of the hands, With a hue like the transparency of emeralds. Why not establish a home in the neon heat Of Nature? Is it not enough, the labor of autumn, Of winter and spring and withering summer? You will hear not one word spoken of the court Of Sigismund Augustus on the banks of the Delaware River. The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys is not needed. Herodotus will repose on his shelf, uncut. And the rose only, a sexual symbol, Symbol of love and superterrestrial beauty, Will open a chasm deeper than your knowledge. About it we find a song in a dream: Inside the rose Are houses of gold, Black isobars, streams of cold. Dawn touches her finger to the edge of the Alps And evening streams down to the bays of the sea. If anyone dies inside the rose They carry him down the purple-red road In a procession of clocks all wrapped in folds. They light up the petals of grottoes with torches. They bury him there where color begins, At the source of the sighing, Inside the rose. Let names of months mean only what they mean. Let the Aurora's cannons be heard in none Of them, or the tread of young rebels marching. We might, at best, keep some kind of souvenir, Preserved like a fan in a garret. Why not sit down at a rough country table and compose An ode in the old manner, as in the old times Chasing a beetle with the nib of our pen? Ode Oh October You are my true delight, Month of the cranberry and the red of the maple, Of Hudson Bay geese a-wing in the transparent air, Dry vines and withering grasses and smoky light, Oh October Oh October The silence of roads in a carpet of pine needles, A whistle fashioned from the wing-bone of an owl, Wailing of dogs on the scent of a buck, And the startled peal of a bird entering the spruces, Oh October Oh October Shine of frost on the blade of a sword When a Polish engineer glimpses near West Point In the vivid woods the maple-red coats of British soldiers Moving soundlessly on the Appalachian trail, Oh October Oh October Cold is your crystal wine, Tart is the taste of your lips above a necklace of rowanberries, Your panting sides are the color Of the fallow hair of a mountain deer, Oh October Oh October Pouring dew on the rusty traces, Blowing a buffalo horn above the rebel camp, Burning bare feet on the sloping hill paths When the smokes of autumn and of cannons drift past, Oh October Oh October Season of poetry, of the total daring Of starting one's life at every moment anew, You gave me the magic ring which, when turned, Sends down a gleam from your jewel of freedom, Oh October Much, much we will be reproached with. Given the choice, we rejected peaceful silence And long meditation on the structure of the world Which deserves respect. Neither the eternal moment Attracted us as it should, nor purity of style. We wanted, instead, to move as words move, Raising the dust of names and of events. We didn't care enough that they disappear In a thousand sparks and we with them. Even The disrepute we have taken on ourselves Was not completely far from our designs, And so, though unwillingly, we pay the price. Many a man will concede, if he knows himself, That he was like someone who hears a chorus Of voices and doesn't know what they mean. Thence, fury. A foot to the accelerator, as if Speed could save us from voices and phantoms. We trailed everywhere an invisible rope, At every moment feeling its hook inside us. And yet the accusers are mistaken, if, Shedding tears over the evils of this age, They saw us as angels, hurled into an abyss, Shaking our fists at the works of God. There is no doubt that many perished, infamously, Because, like an illiterate discovering chemistry, They suddenly discovered relativity and time. For others the very roundness of a stone Picked up on the bank of a river provided The lesson. Or the bleeding gills of a perch, Or - the moon rising over banks of clouds - A beaver ploughing the slumbering softness of water. For contemplation fades without resistance. If we care for it, it should be forbidden. (For its own sake, it should be forbidden.) And we, certainly, were happier than those Who drank sadness from the books of Schopenhauer, While they listened from their garrets to the din Of music from the tavern down below. At least poetry, philosophy, action were not, For us, separated, as they were for them, But joined in one will: we needed to be of use. And that is the - sometimes burdensome - recompense. If we, though our faults were merely historical, Will not receive the laurel of long fame, So what, after all? Some are given monuments And mausoleums, yet in a soft May rain, Covered by a single overcoat, a boy and girl Rush by, entirely indifferent to that perfection. And some word of us may remain in any case, Some remembrance of our half-opened lips: They did not have time to say what they wanted. Spirits of the air, of fire, of water, Keep close to us, but not too close. The ship's propeller drives us from you. It's not fulfilled: the old hope that Neptune Will show his beard, trailing a retinue of nymphs. Nothing but ocean which boils and repeats: In vain, in vain. Nothingness is so strong We try to master it by thinking of the bones Of pirates, the silky eyebrows of governors On which the crabs feast. And our hands grip Harder at the cool metal of the railing. Look for help in the smell of paint and soap. The ship's body, creaking, carries the freight Of our foolishness, vagueness, and hidden faith, The dirt of our subjectivity, and the homeless White faces of the ones who were killed in combat. Carries it where? To the isles of bliss? No, In us storm winds drowned that stanza of Horace A penknife carved into a wooden bench at school. It will not find us in this salt and void: Iam Cytherea choros ducit Venus imminente luna
The narration moves from devastated wartime Poland to the United States. This corresponds to the biography of the author, who after the war served for several years as a member of the pro-Communist Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C. Whereas in the preceding chapter the narrator was confronted with historical events and political decisions, here he tries to forget for a moment Europe in the grip of its own demonic forces and to recover some equilibrium through looking at nature and its eternal rotation of seasons.
Sunt mihi Dei Acherontis propitii: May the gods of Acheron favor me! The triple name of Jehovah be praised! Spirits of fire, of water, of earth, protect me!
Curiously enough, this magical incantation is taken from Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). Nature, however, does not respond and no miraculous creature appears. Nature follows its own laws. Man, alien to Nature because of his mind, does not have at his disposal a magic spell.
The Socrates of snails, Musician of pears: These epithets are borrowed from Wallace Stevens's "Comedian as the Letter C." Stevens stressed the ability of man to inhabit "supreme fictions" created by his mind.
In sculptures and canvases individuality / Manages to survive, / In Nature it perishes: Art is undoubtedly the manifestation of a human individual who puts his or her mark on an inimitable work. In Nature, on the contrary, it is the species, not the individual, that counts.
Here there is sun. And whoever, as a child, / Believed: It was my fancy as a child that grown-ups acted in the way that they did because they were unaware that the same actions had been performed in the same way by others before them. Does this apply also to lovemaking? Perhaps. Behind that childish notion was a belief in the power of human consciousness which should, theoretically, be able to change the order of things and move mountains. In other words, that child was ready to accept any miracle. Yet the repeatable pattern of things, as it turns out, is stronger than our desire for exception, and this is humiliating.
Looks with wonder at the colors of a butterfly / Inexpressible, formed elsewhere, hostile to art: Colors and shapes in Nature are admirable, but they are basically alien to man and his art, which alone creates forms corresponding to his mind.
To keep the oars from squeaking in their locks: The author describes here a real event: how one evening on a lake in northern Pennsylvania he waited to see a beaver.
It does not know time, hasn't heard of death: An encounter with a beaver brings back a sense of the distance separating man from Nature. Consciousness, and therefore the awareness of belonging to a mortal species, builds a bar between man and other living beings. Yet precisely because of consciousness, power over other creatures is given to human beings.
I remember everything. That wedding in Basel: Memory enables man to connect to the past. Not just the memory of what happened to an individual, but the memory of the species. In other words, man possesses history and is able to embrace with his imagination events that occurred five hundred or five thousand years ago. The images in literature, painting, sculpture, film bring to life past epochs and millennia. This passage is like a description of a Renaissance painting and was possibly influenced by a painting.
Perhaps this is only my own love speaking: Identification with that bride from another epoch leads to personal reminiscence, to "the grit of subjectivity." The author is not fond of "confessional" poetry and only from time to time introduces events from his private life.
Splash of a beaver in the American night: Especially in his encounter with Nature, the author feels he is full of images from the pasts of various civilizations. History dwells in him, as do scenes and the names of bygone people, "Belinda of the big foot, Julia, Thais." This enumeration of women's names imitates Francois Villon's: "Where are the snows of yesteryear?"
Peace to the princesses under the tamarisks: An allusion to a French poem by Oscar Milosz, "Karmomama." It was inspired by a statuette of an Egyptian princess of that name in the Louvre, full of tenderness and pity.
We are both the snake and the wheel: We are live creatures like the snake and thus part of the kingdom of Nature. But we built the wheel that crushes the snake; we also belong to a different order, that of memory and consciousness.
Time lifted above time by time: This line refers to T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" in the Four Quartets. Perhaps polemically, for the narrator seems not to aspire, as Eliot did, to arrival at an immobile point outside the passage of time. His intention is rather to humanize time.
Before the butterfly and its color, he, numb: Man, as a part of Nature, is formless and unattainable to himself. He makes and grasps himself through myths and legends about himself-i.e., through an invisible plasma which he emanates and in which he envelops himself.
For what is a butterfly without Julia and Thais?: The world of Nature, palpable, accessible to our senses, provides us with material for thinking about human beings. Innumerable metaphors in love poems, for example, derive from plants, animals, birds, butterflies. Our kingdom and that of Nature are inseparable. And yet we simultaneously belong to it and do not.
For how long will a nonsensical Poland: These lines introduce a discussion of what the French language calls "historicite," the historical quality of phenomena. The English equivalent is "historicity." The notion became imperative in postwar Poland, a country undergoing Marxist indoctrination. The narrator believes that Polish poetry should undergo a radical change as a precondition for meeting Marxist philosophy on its own ground. "A new diction" and "a new tenderness" are seen as the means of liberating man from fatalism and determinism, from the presumed law of historical necessity. The reasoning here is as follows: Marxism undermines all traditional values, including the idea of truth, by showing them to be historically contingent. All right, let us accept the challenge and plunge into historicity. Intense thinking about this prospect, however, leads in a different direction from the Marxist theses.
Cry out / That a sense of history destroys our substance: A sense of history-an awareness that historicity is proper to all phenomena related to man-calls for a new skill in thinking about mankind. When we notice that the flow of time destroys our certainties by revealing their relative value, our first reaction is to retreat into the fortress of Being, to eternal and substantive ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in order to protect ourselves from the corrosion of universal movement. In the third section of the poem the narrator spoke of the opposition between etre and devenir. Here a similar opposition is discussed, and the conclusion is drawn that clinging to etre (with political implications) is doomed to defeat sooner or later. The narrator's philosophical position is in some ways close to the pragmatism of Richart Rorty, though the poem was written long before Rorty's books appeared. The narrator is convinced that his new, flexible way of thinking may serve to "rescue humans" and to anticipate the future. "Keep, as in a seed, the unnamed future."
O City, O Society: The song (in rhymed quatrains) is addressed to society with its oppressive power over the individual. The city invoked is Paris. The author had lived there and would often take the suburban train from the station St. Lazare. A girl in a window, seen from a passing train, unleashes in the narrator a desire to give human beings the freedom of which they are deprived, though they are not aware of it. The narrator here shows his colors as a socialist, though in his prophecy liberation would not be the result of a revolution on Marxist lines. He envisages victory as the moment when "Man arrives, naked and mortal / Ready for truth, for speech, and for wings."
An oar over my shoulder, I walked from the woods: The narrator is obviously in love with American Nature, which he duly romanticizes, as he did in his childhood when he read books for young people about travels in America. He also loves the way of life in rural parts of the United States-square dances, for instance. Observing one, he asks himself: why not stay in America for good? The temptation is strong, yet it takes its shape exclusively from the American countryside, not its cities. To live on a farm somewhere? It would mean to isolate oneself from the affairs of the twentieth century, and from the political and philosophical commitments of Polish poetry.
You will not hear one word of the court of Sigismund Augustus: The reign of this king (1550-72) was the golden age of Polish poetry. It was the time of Jan Kochanowski, whose play on a subject taken from Homer, The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys, was performed at court.
Herodotus (b. 484 b.c.) was, of course, the first European historian. Clio, goddess of history, is his muse.
And only the rose, a sexual symbol: For the narrator the option of staying in America for good would mean choosing life on its biological level. He was not the first European to feel in America the absence of historical memory which is present at every step in Europe thanks to its architectural heritage. Though he admires American landscapes, he regards life in Nature as an impoverishment. What replaces history is sex, which becomes for people the main interest, the subject of their explorations. That is the meaning of the somewhat bizarre song on the interior of the rose.
Let names of months mean only what they mean: In some European countries the names of the months are associated with political events. October is the month of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which was helped by the cannons of the ironclad ship Aurora. November for the Poles always suggests the 1830 uprising against czarist Russia. It was begun by young rebels, officers stationed in Warsaw. The longing to forget these associations is the desire to renounce history.
Oh October: There is a sort of perversity in writing an ode to October simply as an autumn month, when historically it denotes the Russian Revolution, an event which had grave consequences for the whole twentieth century. The ode expresses the narrator's ecstatic enjoyment of the season and, undoubtedly, of his liberation from the fateful date in 1917.
When a Polish engineer glimpses near West Point: These lines suggest that he is, however, still in the grip of historical memories. The forest of New York recalls to him the name of West Point and a Polish participant in the American Revolution, Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817), who built the fort's defenses.
The rebel camp: Unmistakably the Poles who fought the Russians in 1863.
You gave me the magic ring which, when turned, / Sends down a gleam from your jewel of freedom: Does not our author, who was in the service of the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C. from 1946 to 1950, reveal here conflicts of his own? The magic ring he wears is poetry. It is writing poetry that gives him a hidden sense of freedom.
Much, much will we be reproached with: These lines testify to a decision already taken. The narrator has said "no" to a peaceful life on a farm somewhere in America, far from Poland and its insoluble problems. He is aware that this refusal exposes his poetry to the turmoil of his times and precludes his use of it for the contemplation of "eternal truths." This passage repeats, in a concise form, the basic dilemma that confronts the narrator throughout the poem. Poetry as contemplation of being or poetry as participation in movement, that is, in history, and thus a poetry of commitments? The first choice seems more in harmony with the vocation of the poet; the second involves a departure from the rules of a perfected art in the name of moral (?) passion.
Neither the eternal moment attracted us: The eternal moment is the opposite of time. It is, if only for a second, outside the flow of time. T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets speaks of "the still point of the turning world." This idea often appears in the writings of mystics from various civilizations.
Nor purity of style: The idea of purity as an essential trait of poetry preoccupied the French symbolists of the second half of the nineteenth century-above all, Stephane Mallarme (1842-98), who wanted to eliminate from his poems anything that was not necessary to its aesthetic purpose. In fact, he broke the link connecting a poem to reality, thus making a descriptive poetry impossible.
Not caring enough that they disappear: Any actuality is short-lived, and art bound by it risks being forgotten. This poem is an example of radical opposition to "pure poetry" and of its consequences. The poem is full of names and historical situations, and so, even for a Polish reader, the need for commentary imposes itself.
And yet the accusers are mistaken: Who are the accused? Who are the accusers? Roughly speaking, the first are all those who have chosen movement, devenir or becoming, and accept therefore the flux of things, including the idea of truth. These are the disciples of Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey, etc. The narrator, despite his reservations about Marxism, belongs to this group. There are, however, people attached to a conservative vision of immutable essences. For them the partisans of flux and universal movement undermine, with their materialism and determinism, a divine order. This division into two camps has political implications. The peculiar situation of the author, who was not himself a Communist, who was in the employ of a Communist government, exposed him to attacks from the political right. They are, perhaps, the accusers.
There is no doubt that many perished infamously: A new, more mobile way of thinking is a dangerous tool, as is shown by the example of some people who, unprepared, read the subverters of traditional values, Nietzsche and Marx, and are tempted by the nihilist denial of Being, which to medieval thinkers was another name for God. The narrator advises against such an extreme; he wants to retain both ends of the contradiction. According to him, the observation of tangible things (the roundness of a stone, the gills of a perch, a beaver) restores our reverence for the fundamental quality of the world, which is esse, "to be." Contemplation of that quality is a basic attribute, and the privilege, of poetry. Thus the narrator speaks here as a poet; he defends his craft against the encroachment of social and political duties. It seems to me that in his narrator's search for equilibrium the author has been influenced by American pragmatism, especially by William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, which he read in his early youth.
For contemplation fades without resistance: This line is directed against purity in poetry, but it is also a polemic with the T. S. Eliot of Four Quartets. By renouncing the world for the sake of "the still point," of perfect stillness outside time, we may deprive contemplation of its intensity. Sugar is good, but it should not be eaten by the spoonful.
And we certainly were happier than those: Here we are returned to the first part of the poem, to the time before the First World War when poets, isolated from society, rebelling against it but rejected by it, lived in garrets and read the philosopher most influential at that time, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). His pessimistic philosophy advocated a Buddhist nonattachment. He was one of the first European thinkers to borrow from the religions of India and through him the word "Nirvana" entered the vocabulary of poets. This reception of Schopenhauer was, however, short-lived and limited to narrow circles of the literati. The author of the poem has been an admirer of the philosopher, though he would find in him different things than did his readers at the beginning of the twentieth century.
At least poetry, philosophy, action were not separated: This is a bold statement, yet it is justified to some extent by the very fact of writing a work like Treatise on Poetry. It is, after all, a poem of commitment, both to a vision of what poetry should be and to a non- totalitarian model of society.
If we, though our fault were merely historical / Will not receive the laurel of long fame, / So what, after all?: A considerable amount of humility is needed to make such a declaration. Hope for fame has always been a powerful motive for poets, and we may ask what makes the narrator willing to relinquish it. Perhaps he implies that the age of perfect art is over and that only an art aware of its lameness is possible? Anyway, he says, our lips "never had time to say what they wanted."
Spirits of air, of fire, of water: The last passage of the poem describes travel by ship to Europe in 1950. For the author, this was a very difficult option, slightly insane from a practical point of view, but not without a hidden existential logic. Staying in America, he might very well have written contemplative poetry, and he would probably not have produced prose like The Captive Mind, Seizure of Power, and Native Realm, books that arose from the circumstances to which he exposed himself: his feud with the Stalinists and his life as an emigre. Treatise on Poetry, written in France in 1955-56, traces a part of that journey. In succinct form, it explains why he could not, either philosophically or politically, be on the right, though he also rejected Communism. In that way, Treatise is about poetry as an all- embracing activity and not just an expression of personal feeling. It depicts the twentieth century not in general, but in one spot in Europe, Poland, where history took the guise of tragedy. It would be better, no doubt, to have chosen a less provincial topic. Yet there is a virtue to limiting a poem to the complexities one knows firsthand.
Nothing but the ocean, which boils and repeats: / In vain, in vain: The ocean is Nature and the frail ship civilization.
Iam Cytherea choros ducit: Already Cytherean Venus leads choruses, dancing under the rising moon.
Translated by Robert Hass and the Author
Authorized First Publication
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|Author:||Milosz, Czeslaw; Hass, Robert|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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