Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488

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“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down. He fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.” So says the Bible’s Job, and the Western lyric tradition has been saying so ever since. The fleeting nature of human life has preoccupied poets for centuries, sometimes expressing itself in calls to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” other times expressing itself in somber contemplation of the dust of kings.

Szymborska’s theme, then, is not a new one, and neither is her metaphor of life as a journey. The notion that, side trips and accidental detours notwithstanding, everyone is heading toward the same destination is as old as the story of Gilgamesh and as new as the latest “road movie.” What makes Szymborska’s treatment interesting is her choice of emotional framework. She places these meditations on “non-eternity” within a set of ordinary human relationships that, like the theme itself, are as ancient as they are troublesome.

Szymborska’s speaker takes her own ordinariness for granted. She is like everyone else; she was born and she will die. Yet so far she has managed to avoid the idea that the man she loves is subject to the same eternal law as ordinary people. She does not idolize him; her problem has more to do with the human tendency to take loved ones for granted.

The first line, “So that is his mother,” might set the stage for either a tragedy or a comedy; in either case two women have claims on one man. So on one hand the speaker is coolly sizing the mother up, taking the measure of a rival. She has a certain advantage, because the encounter is one-sided. The reader has no idea whether the mother sees the speaker, let alone what she might think of her. On the other hand, the measure is an intimidating one, because the mother is not only the means by which the man came to exist but also the very reason for his existence. She not only brought the man to this shore, she created him. Having “bound him to the bones hidden from me,” the mother knows things that the speaker does not. Not only that, his gray eyes are his mother’s eyes as well. She has knowledge, and therefore power, that the speaker lacks.

The tension between wife and mother-in-law is implied in the words used to describe the latter. “Gray-eyed perpetrator” is an accusation. Many a wife or lover has leveled accusations at her husband’s mother, but this poem contains what might be the ultimate one, which could be paraphrased as, “He is mortal, he is going to die, and it is all your fault.” At the same time, as Szymborska knows perfectly well, mortality is no one’s fault; it is simply a fact of existence.