Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 488 words.)