Bobo's Metamorphosis

by Czesław Miłosz

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

The ideal task of the poet, Miosz pointed out in his Nobel Prize lecture, “is to contemplate the word ‘is.’ ” In Miosz’s case, this “is” encompasses ontology (over the more fashionable contemporary preoccupation with epistemology), on the one hand, and a preoccupation with “the complexity and richness of the visible world,” on the other. Conceiving the world as indissolubly double—as objective existence and ontological essence—and drawing on Urbanowska’s children’s story about a boy turned into a fly, Miosz embodies in his poem that “basic curiosity about the world” which he, both as “witness to poetry” (the title of his Harvard lectures) and as witness to history (the German occupation of Poland and the rise of the Stalinist state), warns is fast disappearing. About “flying into the center of things” and exploring “reality from various angles, in various guises,” according to the poet, “Bobo’s Metamorphosis” conforms to Miosz’s definition of poetry as “the passionate pursuit of the Real,” but a Real which remains stubbornly, magically unattainable.

Against history’s generalizations and its annihilation of the individual, Miosz posits the sensuous apprehension of the world in all its immediacy as it is experienced, remembered, or contemplated. Although experience and memory act as checks on each other and so would appear to have more or less equal status, memory in fact occupies a special place in Miosz’s philosophical scheme, mediate between the experiential and the eternal. Marked by two temporal worlds, memory exhibits the duality of humanity’s at once timebound and timeless existence.

The linkage of the sensual and the spiritual in “Bobo’s Metamorphosis” derives at least in part from the Catholicism in which Miosz was trained and to which he continued to subscribe. The essential paradox at the very heart of the poem, however, summed up in the line “Life was given but unattainable” and even more succinctly in the phrase “the eternal moment” from “Notebook: Bon by Lake Leman,” written a decade earlier, derives in large measure from a quite different source: the writings of Simone Weil, and her thoughts on contradiction in particular. One must not become “at home” with contradiction too easily, Weil has warned; rather, one must struggle against it with all one’s intelligence and only then admit to its inevitability. In “Bobo’s Metamorphosis,” the contradictory forces do not merely oppose one another: They meet and merge (or metamorphose) one into the other. The “eternal moment” that is the poem “Bobo’s Metamorphosis” develops from the fluid movement of various styles, forms, subjects, and the “passionate pursuit of a Real” which is at once ephemeral and eternal, fragmentary and whole, “given” and “unattainable.”

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