Bobo's Metamorphosis

by Czesław Miłosz

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793

“Bobo’s Metamorphosis” is a 102-line poem—or cycle of poems—in eight sections, each having its own style, subject, and structure. Despite the differences, the poem develops cohesiveness on the basis of recurrent imagery and consistent thematic focus.

Drawn from an eighteenth century Polish text entitled Zabawy przyjemne i poyteczne (1776; entertainments pleasant and useful), the poem’s epigraph, “The distance between being and nothingness is infinite,” serves as an excellent introduction to both the poem and the six typographically distant lines that make up its opening section. In this section, which resembles Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” the first three lines are lyrically intense but only barely sketched word-pictures. The fourth and longest line introduces a narrative “I.” The fifth is the most abstract, as an annunciation of the reader’s dilemma and the poem’s theme: “Life was given but unattainable.” The sixth line, a reprise of the preceding five, transforms seeing into feeling and telescopes time and space into a single, fragmentary transtemporal moment: “From childhood till old age ecstasy at sunrise.”

Dawn and dusk serve as ways of establishing a painterly and almost mythic frame of reference and of creating an odd continuity between the poem’s otherwise discontinuous parts. Section 2, for example, begins with a fragment which almost seems an afterthought to section 1, an attempt to complete what was left unfinished: “As life goes, many of these mornings.” Section 2 also reintroduces the “I” who only fleetingly appeared in section 1. Again there is a telescoping of time (“I was grown up and small”), but now this telescoping is contextualized as the seemingly random recollections of a narrator who may be Miosz, as suggested by the geographical references in line 9, but who may also be an insect, as suggested by the fourth line of section 1, the fifth line of section 2, and the seventh section of the poem.

Section 3 presents, in a highly naturalistic yet semifantastic manner, a solitary “consciousness” hiking somewhere in California. The relative continuity gives way to the complexity of the poem’s fourth and longest section, which begins with a mention of the story of Philemon and Baucis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. c.e. 8). The mention of the “wandering god” and the “advancing weevil” recalls the hiking consciousness earlier and prepares the way for the return of the wandering, advancing “I,” who will recall his own version of Baucis in a jumbled sequence of images ending with her sudden aging and departure. In the final two stanzas of section 4, the narrator’s cinematic memory jump-cuts from autobiographical recollection back to literary fantasy: to Prospero’s island from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) and more specifically to Miranda, the sorcerer’s daughter. Miranda is seen briefly against a backdrop which includes spirits looking strangely like skin divers, another of the poem’s many temporal and spatial discontinuities.

The narrative “I” abandons the role of Prospero and returns to autobiographical recollection in the next two sections, the only time in the poem that a single narrative is carried over from one section to the next. The subject is the unnamed artist whom “I likedas he did not look for an ideal object”—he commits himself to the impossible art of painting things as they are.

Section 7 clarifies the poem’s title even if it does not identify its source: Zofia Urbanowska’s children’s book of the same name in which, as the poem points out, “Bobo, a nasty boy, was changed into a fly.” In the novel, Bobo is restored to human form and given the opportunity to reform. The poem’s version of Bobo’s metamorphosis is equally humorous and fantastic but less moralistic. It is far more lyrical and is also, in its hint of death, a bit somber.

“Bobo’s Metamorphosis” is a poem of dust and death but also of excess and ecstasy. Nowhere are the two combined so effectively as in the final stanza, which serves as a reprise and distillation. The table introduced in section 2 takes on a more overtly important role, separating the narrative “I” from the woman who sits across from him. The efforts of the “I” to know this minutely observed person recall the realist artist’s desire to draw both object and essence in sections 5 and 6. The distance between “I” and “other” is imaged in terms of Zeno’s arrow moving across an infinitely divisible space of time. The image creates a paradoxical sense of both the despairingly impossible and the joyously inexhaustible. Looking across that endless expanse, the narrator believes that the woman knows what he knows. From this mutual knowledge of endless separation comes what the poem affirms, that “humanness, tenderness” which may not be two distinct qualities at all.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

Although it refers specifically to a single children’s story, the title “Bobo’s Metamorphosis” implies a profusion of endlessly metamorphosing autobiographical materials (people, places, events, as well as literary texts), which in turn implies Miosz’s belief that poetry comes from personal experience, not from other poetry. For Miosz, however, poetry must never be merely personal, or merely historical. A poem is not a confession but a distillation and transformation of life into art through form. By form, Miosz means something quite different than meter, rhyme, and the other trappings of conventional verse. He means the “search” for “direct forms,” a search which may, as in the case of “Bobo’s Metamorphosis,” involve the bringing together of many different forms, including (as in the first section) ones that may be mere notes or jottings.

The language of these notelike lines, and indeed of the entire poem, is simple and direct—surprisingly so given the range and depth of Miosz’s religious and philosophical interests. This simple speech is well suited to what Miosz has called his “struggle to seize hold of fragments of reality.” His need to capture in words “something that actually happened” becomes most clearly articulated in section 5. There, Miosz takes exception to Poland’s other great contemporary poet, Zbigniew Herbert, for claiming in one of his own poems that “The most beautiful object/ is the one that doesn’t exist.” The artist who appears in the fifth section of “Bobo’s Metamorphosis,” like Miosz, rejects the privileging of abstraction and metaphor over reality. Miosz and his artist (anonymous but, by virtue of “his tobacco-stained beard,” not abstract) choose a more realistic approach in their efforts “to name, paint, draw” existing objects. This naming implies something more than mere photographic depiction. It implies that contemplative state toward which Miosz’s “realistic” yet highly meditative poetry is invariably drawn and against which he feels as invariably compelled to offer the counterweight of events in all their immediacy and time in all its fluidity.

The immediacy and fluidity of “Bobo’s Metamorphosis” are most artfully apparent in the repeated metamorphoses of subjects, scenes, styles, and time, such as the frequent shifts from present to past tense and the change of mood in section 4 from indicative to subjunctive. Objects, people, places, and certain key words appear, disappear, and suddenly, almost randomly, reappear in a text which strikes the reader as specific in detail yet strangely elusive in meaning. The poem is realistic in approach yet fantastic, even magical in effect, like the original Bobo’s Metamorphosis. Overall, the poem operates within the opposing claims established by the two forms of what, after “metamorphosis,” is its most important word: the kinetic physicality of the verb “to attain” and the static spirituality of the noun “the attainable.”

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