The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 644

“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;...

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“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.” Late afternoon turns to a fiery sunset, then to night. “Out of nothing/ it boils up,” he writes, tracking the setting sun through the color spectrum toward night: “pink flame,/ red flame, vermilion, purple, deeper purple, dark.”

At this point, the focus shifts to a personification of night as a god disguised as a beggar and offers two folk legends as cautionary tales that function as the poem’s moral center. The first tells what will happen to the populace that turns away the beggar from their door. The second offers a parable of why the leaves of the aspen quiver: “it failed to hide the Virgin and the Child/ when Herod’s hunters were abroad.” These folk tales call forth a strong peasant tradition, as in a country such as Poland; together with the mention of the children of the “eastern marches,” they connect this section of the poem to its opening and to the title.

In the final section of the poem, the poet returns to his tale of night as “the god/ dressed as the beggar drinking the sweet milk.” He extends the description of the beggar, comparing him to an alternately suckling and crying infant. Here Hass associates himself with the beggar, saying that he too would like to suckle at that breast, the one which has mysteriously appeared as his tale evolved out of the darkness of night into an image of nurture and desire (“The pink nubbin/ of the nipple glistens”). The reader will be reminded of his desire for the woman, expressed in the first section of the poem.

The mysterious glistening breast is also connected to the fiery colors of sunset: “the muttering illumination/ of the fields before the sun goes down,” before the American relief train came to Poland from Prussia bringing medicine and canned goods (this would have to be at the end of World War I, before Prussia ceased to exist). The concluding lines, presumably also drawn from Hass’s reading of Polish history, proclaim the end of the war and catalog his ambiguous feelings about this “era of the dawn of freedom”—on the positive side, there is a new day with “skylarks singing,” but on the negative side, there are unburied dead and “starved children begging chocolate on the tracks.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

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 Congregational church is an American denomination of Protestantism founded in colonial New England. Working against the temptation to sacralize nature, however, is the imagery of impending darkness, the heavy air, the sour smells, the “impure” sunset, “maniacal cicadas”—earth itself seems violent, capable of evil.

Hass employs two modes of discourse in the poem. The first is colloquial, as in the opening line, “When I ran, it rained.” This is his hook; it is catchy (it almost rhymes), and it invites the reader’s commiseration with a familiar situation. This line is also a structural device, since it is repeated midway through the first half of the poem, the point at which Hass wishes to draw attention to the darkening afternoon. He also tends to address the reader directly, informally (“You could wring the sourness of the sumac from the air”; “Think: night is the god dressed as the beggar”).

Set against this familiar, colloquial style is Hass’s second mode of discourse, the self-consciously poetic, in which he employs several traditional poetic devices. The first, italicized, as if to call attention to it, is the apostrophe to the “Lady of eyelashes,” presumably the woman he has been thinking about a few lines earlier. Apostrophe is the love poet’s time-honored way of expressing his desire for his lady. This passage eroticizes the already sensual descriptions of “the moody, humid” afternoon by connecting them to the poet’s desire.

Readers will also note the personification of night as the god disguised as a beggar, and the development of this personification into an extended metaphor. The rather revolting beggar in his extreme old age turns back into an infant as he sucks the nurturing milk from the breast. Thus his symbolic value becomes apparent. Moreover, this figure appears to serve multiple symbolic functions. Hass makes him represent night turning into day, war giving way to peace, Poland in its new era of independence, as well as the ages of man, or Everyman, an ancient allegorical figure.

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