Study Guide

Bells in Winter

by Czesław Miłosz

Bells in Winter Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Czesaw Miosz’s Bells in Winter is a book of short lyric poems, an extended historical poem, and one long poem made up of six sections. The lyric poems are various, since some deal with nature and religion and others with the social and historical losses of the mid-twentieth century. The long poem goes back to Miosz’s native Lithuania to attempt to come to terms with both the dislocations of the twentieth century and his own history. The earliest poems in the collection were written in 1936 and 1944 in the midst of the destruction of World War II in Eastern Europe. Miosz is a poet who writes in Polish but was born in Lithuania, and he saw the destruction of his country and the slaughter of millions. In this way the context of history frames the rest of the poems, which were written in the 1970’s.

The first poem in the collection is called “Encounter.” It begins with a pastoral landscape with a hare and a man who perceives it. The poem then contrasts that pastoral scene with death and destruction. “Today neither of them is alive,/ Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.” The speaker asks where are they going, but there is no answer. Instead, the sense of loss is modulated by placing it in another emotional context: “I ask not in sorrow, but in wonder.” The poem was written in 1936, a time when the beginnings of World War II were becoming apparent. Wonder is the appropriate emotion to the cataclysm that was to take place; it is literally beyond sorrow.

In contrast, “A Frivolous Conversation,” written in 1944, provides a positive vision that can come into being when “mutability ceases.” The vision is of a blessed earth filled with marvels and “tranquil glory.” However, the speaker of the poem only contemplates these wonders; he does not desire and is “content.” The speaker is free from desire, and the time is free from the destruction that change brings. It is a rare moment of pure contemplation and stasis. Thus, the first two poems contrast and represent the dual vision on which Miosz’s art insists.

“Tidings” clearly contrasts to “A Frivolous Conversation.” It seeks to define “earthly civilization,” asking if it is “a system of colored spheres cast in smoked glass” or a “golden fleece,/ In a rainbow net.” After such glorious but fantastical images, the answer is much different. “Or perhaps we’ll say nothing of earthly civilization./ For nobody really knows what it was.” This suggests that the various positive formulations of civilization are merely illusions, and the reality of human life is far different and more terrible.

“How It Was” also deals with civilization. The poem portrays a journey deep “into the mountains” where the speaker sees only “absence.” There was “No eagle-creator . . . protective spirits hid themselves in subterranean beds of bubbling ore.” In this poem, there is no God the Father and no Son of God: “This time it was really the end of the Old and the New Testament.” The poem concludes with the speaker described as among those who “longed for the Kingdom” and took refuge “in the mountains to become the last heirs of a dishonored myth.” Miosz often writes about Christianity and its history. In this poem, the Christian era has come to an end and the poet-speaker is one of the few to remain loyal to a myth that no longer has the power to compel belief or reverence. Miosz often sees the modern world as embracing nihilism; he understands its sources and context, but he can never give his assent to it.

“Not This Way” is a poem of self-accusation, one of many in the book. The poet-speaker describes himself as a “schemer” who uses language in a “childish” manner to transform “the sublime into the cordial.” His voice “always lacked fullness.” He desires a new language of the elements of “fire and water” to “render a new thanksgiving.” In this vision, poetry must reduce itself to the essentials and to a language of utter simplicity in order to fulfill its mission.

“Study of Loneliness” portrays one man alone in the daily glories of nature who begins to question for whom those splendors exist. “For me alone?/ Yet it will be here long after I perish.” Nature will go on, apparently indifferent to the fate of humanity. The resolution of the poem is a recognition that it is hopeless to complain: “And he knew there was no use in crying out, for none of them would save him.” Salvation cannot come from humanity or from nature, even though Miosz...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)