The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Between the Wars” is a lyrical meditation of fifty-one lines. The opening lines place the poet in his setting and report on his activities: He runs in late afternoons, in the midsummer heat and humidity of upstate New York. He is writing, and at the same time reading Polish history; he is also thinking of a woman. He addresses the woman, speaking to her of his desire in the voice of Poland, in the “‘era of the dawn of freedom,’ nineteen twenty-two.” The title, “Between the Wars,” and this line inform the reader that he refers to the time between the two world wars, actually between 1918 and 1939. Why he refers to Poland specifically in 1922 is not stated. Poland gained its independence in 1918, but its independent existence was precarious and short-lived, for Adolf Hitler invaded it in 1939. As a country overrun for most of its history by more powerful neighbors, Poland’s people have suffered the worst indignities and persecutions of war. Knowing Poland’s history in the twentieth century, the reader realizes that the optimism expressed in the phrase “dawn of freedom” will prove naïve.

The poem is not divided into stanzas and may be thought of as consisting of long sentences rather than lines demarcated by end-breaks, as in most shorter lyric or rhymed poems. Though it has no spatial divisions on the page, the opening sentence, “When I ran, it rained,” repeats at line 15, introducing a deepening of the poet’s preoccupation with the late-afternoon light of this region, which he terms a version of the “American sublime.”...

(The entire section is 644 words.)