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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1864

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.

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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 writes some of his most moving poems on the power within nature.

“A Felicitous Life” is one of the most interesting lyrics in the collection. It first portrays the blessed life of a man who dies in a time of peace without any disturbances in nature. He feels a pang of loss in his death: “It was bitter to say farewell to the earth so renewed.” However, the resolution of the poem is very different. “Two days after his death a hurricane razed the coast.” Dormant volcanos erupt and “war began with a battle in the islands.” The regret at losing the world and beneficent nature is ironically reversed as the transitory nature of everything is revealed. Peace gives way to war and nature turns upon itself.

“Temptation” is another poem of self-accusation. The poet-speaker is seen as “taking a walk” with “the spirit of desolation.” This spirit is telling the poet that he is “not necessary,” others would have done what he did. The poem, however, reverses itself as the poet responds by rejecting that spirit of desolation. “It’s not up to me to judge the calling of men./ And my merits, if any, I won’t know anyway.” Reputation is not the poet’s business. He will be judged in time by others after he is dead. His job is simply to create and to do what he can. Desolation only impedes that creation as does concern with reputation.

“The Chronicles of the Town of Pornic” is a historical poem of four sections. In the first section, it is the site of Bluebeard’s Castle. Giles de Laval had “too much freedom” and fell in with the “courtly Falstaffs” of his region. The judgment on his actions, however, is divided in the poem. He either “violated all divine and human rights,” or he was put to death “out of greed for his land.” Miosz does not settle the problem but lets the opposite views stand simultaneously.

The next section of this poem is called “The Owners.” It is now the time of revolution, when aristocrats are beheaded and the lower classes take over the castle. First, it is occupied by a blacksmith and later a merchant who pays off the debt. “The castle was then inherited by Joubert, manufacturer of cloth.” The decline in the inhabitants is ironic as the common and ordinary replace the aristocrats. The “Vandeans” portrays the revenge of those who were temporarily displaced. They murder 215 persons in their social rage. Knowledge of this atrocity is retained only in the memory of a “very old woman” who witnessed it at the age of four.

The last section of the poem is “Our Lady of Recovery.” The statue in the “granite chapel” represents a resolution to the murder that social change brings. Our Lady is there to create a longing to return to “the dear earth.” The end of this section suggests that a new cycle is to begin, a fruitful and benign one. “Later they drank, grew boisterous, their women conceived./ Her smile meant that it was all according to her will.” The will of the Virgin stands for the creative, in contrast to the destructive, impulse in humanity. She can help humankind overcome the seemingly endless destruction caused by class and history.

“Ars Poetica” is a manifesto on the art of poetry. Miosz sees poetry as involuntary and controlled by a “daimonion.” Such an activity is not pleasant, and no sane person would wish to become “a city of demons.” The best poetry, according to Miosz, is without “irony” and morbidity. Finally, he asserts, poetry “should be written rarely and reluctantly . . . and only with the hope/ that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.” Miosz consistently sees an important role for poetry if only the poet can suspend his pride and desire for rewards.

The last poem in the collection, “From the Rising of the Sun,” is a long poem that is divided into six sections. The first section is clearly an introduction to the poem. It contrasts Miosz’s life in California along the Pacific coast with his childhood in Lithuania. In his early years, he was “cuddled like a vegetal baby in a seed.” In America, “I write here in desolation/ Beyond the land and sea.”

The second section returns to his early years in Poland, where he was taught about nature by Stefan Baginski and Erazm Majewski. However, he turns away from “the profession of a traveler-naturalist” and makes a pilgrimage back to that earlier life and place. He returns to the chapel where a “wooden Madonna” is admired by art lovers. What is lost, however, can never be recovered again; his memory is “unfaithful.” He hears “no call./ And the holy had its abode only in denial.” “Over Cities” returns to that early world, but the poet-speaker finds loss and absence again. “Everything taken away. Crossed out. All our treasures.” He recalls scenes of instruction with “Sir Hieronymus,” but neither he nor that world can return. “And where is Sir Hieronymus? Where did I go? Here there is no one.”

“A Short Recess” deals with the guilt of Miosz at leaving his native land to go to Paris, here called “Megalopolis.” “I wanted glory, fame and power. . . . So I fled to countries.” The decision to seek glory means that he must break pledges and oaths made in and to his land. The result is not glory but doubt and self-recrimination. “Who can tell what purpose is served by destinies/ And whether to have lived on earth means little/ Or much.”

The last section of the poem “Bells in Winter” returns triumphantly to the land that Miosz abandoned for Paris and, later, California. He portrays a cold morning when he hears all of the church bells of the city peal “So that Lisbeth wrapped up in her cape could go to morning mass.” (Lisbeth is an old servant woman who brought logs for the fireplace for the apartment that Miosz occupied in his younger days.) He then contrasts that magical moment with the bells to his present residence in San Francisco and its “rusty fog.” He sees, however, in this section, the possibility of restoration. “And the form of every single grain will be restored in glory./ I was judged for my despair because I was unable to understand this.” The vision of the restoration of all things is evoked in the poem, even though the poet acknowledges that he is unable to affirm it in his life.

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