“Astonishment” was written in 1972, but the main ideas of the poem are echoed in much of Szymborska’s earlier and later work as well. The notion of “astonishment” or wonderment at the complexity of the universe is seen in much of her poetry as the poet looks with curiosity, awe, sadness, and even joy at the contingency of human existence and the place humans occupy in the universe. In her 1996 Nobel lecture, Szymborska talks about inspiration, which she says is “born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” Poets are not the only ones whom inspiration visits, she says—inspiration comes to doctors, teachers, and gardeners as well—but genuine poets must keep repeating the phrase “I don’t know,” and each poem marks an effort to try to know, which the poet inevitably finds cannot be satisfactorily done. The poet looks around at the world, she says, and ultimately does not know what to think or make of it. The world is incredible in its vastness, and human beings, as all animals, are but specks in this “measureless theater.” Human life is laughably short and bounded by two arbitrary dates of life and death. But, Szymborska says, whatever else humans might think, know, or not know about this world, “it is astonishing.” And what is interesting is that the world is not astonishing because it deviates from some norm humans know, but it is simply astonishing per se, even though there is nothing to compare it with. There is nothing usual or normal about the world, she says. It is extraordinary, and poets especially cannot cease to be amazed by it. The fact that they do not know adds to this amazement and sense of incredulousness. In “Astonishment,” Szymborska looks closely at the sense of astonishment she feels as a person and a poet who “does not know” as she surveys the seemingly ordinary world and its unfathomable mysteries.
The poem takes the form of a series of ten questions. That there are exactly ten questions gives the work a sense of formality and order, which is undercut by the fact that the questions are essentially unanswerable. From the beginning, as the questions are posed, the poet refers to herself, but she only makes this explicit a few times in the course of the poem. In the first four lines, she asks a series of “why” questions. She begins by asking why it is that she is the particular being she is and not one or all of the others that she could be or could have been in the universe. Why, she asks in line 2, is she this specific self? She goes on to wonder why she is a human being who lives in a house as opposed to, say, a bird in a nest. And why is this self she occupies “sewn up” in the skin of a human being rather than the scales of a fish? Why is her self in a body topped off with a face and not a tree topped off by a leaf instead?
As the poet asks these questions, however, she does not refer specifically to herself, humans, birds, fish, or trees. Rather, she refers to the external dwellings of the creatures she describes. She asks why her self is in a house rather than a nest, only suggesting and not stating explicitly that she is referring to birds and humans. She does not refer to fish but to “scales,” and talks about a “leaf” but not a tree. By referring only to the external trappings of humans and animals, the poet suggests that the “self” in each of them is in fact not so different. Each of these creatures is a living being, an existent entity that finds itself in a particular situation, trapped as it were in a particular body. But there seems to be no reason—at least that the poet can decipher—why each of them is confined to or assigned the external body it has received. The poet does not understand why it has come about that, of all the possible places it could have been, her self happens to be housed in the particular human body she has, or why she is this...