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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The reader will quickly notice that imagery of light and dark dominates the first half of the poem. Within a landscape darkened by rain, then lighted by an incendiary sunset, and finally settling into darkness, Hass depicts a world alive in its sensual particularities. Hass is a careful namer of plants and animals, a barometer of the slightest changes in the weather, a recorder of the sounds of birds, insects, and odors rising from the land. With great care he specifies the redwings in the cattails, the blackbirds in the reeds, the blossoms of the wild carrot, the sour odor of the sumac, the sweetness of the fescue, the loud insistence of cicadas, the colors of the sunset.

All of this teeming life—what he terms “the moody, humid/ American sublime”—is organized into a metaphor of encroaching night as death, and presented in quasi-religious terms in the first half of the poem. The redwings and the “massed clouds” perform a “requiem,” a Mass for the dead. Possibly the red stripe on the wings of the otherwise black birds is what Hass means when he refers to them as “death’s idea of twilight.”

The American sublime suggests a nineteenth century view of nature that elevated it to quasi-religious status, assigning it transcendental powers. The description of “the levitating, Congregational, meadow-light-at-twilight/ light” continues the religious connotations by associating the quality of the light with religious experience....

(The entire section is 572 words.)