Study Guide

Between the Wars

by Robert Hass

Between the Wars Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

If one takes the title, “Between the Wars,” as an announcement of the poem’s main concerns and considers the ambiguous images of the concluding lines, wherein the “era of the dawn of freedom” brings both the end of war and the specter of starving children and unburied dead, then the poem’s theme is the precariousness of peace in this world. Peace is difficult to maintain because people are governed by desire. In this poem, Hass is governed by his desire for a woman, by his running, his reading, and writing—the urges and impulses that make up an individual human life. As a poet, he is governed by his desire to praise the world and its multiple beauties even though the evidence of war’s horrors haunts his descriptions of fields and sunset from the outset. It is noteworthy that the voice of unqualified praise goes to the newly independent Poland, cast (appropriately) in the role of passionate and hopeful lover.

Thus the poem is divided between the poet’s impulse to praise and his moral imperative to warn and caution. People who turn away the beggar and refuse to shelter the innocent will be punished for their selfishness. War is the ultimate failure of love. If the evidence of his century will not permit him to write the sensual poem of praise that arises out of desire for the world, he will write a parable, a poem of moral instruction. This impulse nearly wins out in the second half of the poem. In the end, however, desire for the beautiful world is the breast that “glistens” with promise, and the poet appears to find its temptation irresistible. Nevertheless, his acceptance of the world is qualified by the closing lines, drawing the reader back to images of war and its aftermath. Optimistic statements about a new “dawn of freedom” can only be read as tragically ironic in the light of history.