Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “With Trumpets and Zithers,” as in the other poems of the volume from which it is taken, Miosz is preoccupied with a specific metaphysical problem, a philosophical opposition. He wonders how anyone, through poetry or otherwise, can look for meaning through the veil of the actual to the esse, the core of existence itself, without leaving behind the particular, physical nature of that existence. In other words, Miosz wants to understand the meaning of his own presence and consciousness, but he cannot attain a vantage point from which a God’s-eye view of creation is actually possible and which would permit him to see the whole shape of the cosmos and of his life as a human being. Such a vantage point must, by logical necessity, lie outside the bounds of that life and that consciousness. This is a problem which has troubled mystics and philosophers from ancient times to the present, and it is certainly one of the great unanswerable questions of practiced thought.

Miosz’s own response to this question comes in the form of what he calls, in another poem from this collection, “ecstatic despair” (“The Year”). He recognizes the impossibility of fulfilling his desire for absolute knowledge, or of sustaining the visionary ecstasy that “With Trumpets and Zithers” describes. Nevertheless, he values highly the vital energy of his poetic endeavor, of striving toward the “essence” that forever escapes him, and of the sensual, particularly physical aspects of that vision. If he must despair at never finding a pure, “crystalline” form in which to express himself or escaping the trappings of past and future, of memory and desire, that underpin his consciousness, he nevertheless finds meaning and worth in the dithyrambic fervor of poetry itself.

Miosz’s poems are often dense and complex, but they contain a constant, sustained inquiry into human understanding and the nature of existence. Miosz is a dualist, always opposing to the apparently fallen world of everyday life a hidden realm of spiritual and ontological wholeness. Recognizing that he can never reconcile these two ethoi in his poetry, he continues his struggle with language and with concept, uncovering value and beauty in the human effort to come to terms with life itself.