The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Born of Woman” is a poem in free verse, containing forty-five lines divided into sixteen stanzas of varying length. The ending on the Polish word of the original title, “Urodzony,” makes it clear at the outset that the subject is a man; the poem represents the musings of his wife or lover, who has just caught her first glimpse of his mother. Her words are directed inward; she is talking to herself.

The first stanza begins abruptly, as if the speaker were somewhat surprised or bemused: “So that is his mother.” What follows is barely a description, for the only physical details offered are that she is gray-eyed and small. Small she may be, but she is the cause, the “perpetrator” of the man’s existence. From “perpetrator” Wisawa Szymborska moves into one of her controlling metaphors. The mother is the boat in which he floated to shore and out of which he struggled into this temporary world. The fourth stanza finally defines the relationship between the speaker and the man—between the “I” and the “he” of the poem—but does so in the barest of terms. The mother is “the bearer of the man/ with whom I walk through fire.”

The next four stanzas focus on the mother, who, unlike the wife, did not choose him but rather created him. She seems to be complete in herself, the ultimate beginning, the “alpha” who molded him into the form and shape that the wife now sees. She gave him the gray eyes that in turn looked at...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem’s short, sometimes incomplete sentences, short lines, and short stanzas create the impression of a woman talking to herself, trying to cope with what seems to be an unpleasant surprise. However, the tone is more reflective, wry, and controlled than it is overtly emotional, and the thought process does not seem fragmented or disjointed. Szymborska uses both repetition and metaphor to connect the thoughts, moving the poem coherently from beginning to end.

Stanzas often begin with parallel constructions. “So that is . . .” introduces three stanzas describing the mother and is used one last time midstanza when the speaker comes to the crux of the problem: “So he too was born.” The same construction may link the opening lines of two successive stanzas; for example, stanza 13 begins with “And his head,” and stanza 14 begins with “And his movements.” Although there is no rhyme or fixed meter, there is rhythm.

Single words, too, are repeated, most strikingly in Szymborska’s use of pronouns—or more accurately, in her repeated avoidance of specific nouns. The speaker names no one; the poem is dominated by “his,” “she,” “her,” “I,” “my.” (This effect is even more exaggerated in the English translation, because Polish verbs indicate gender in the past tense. So “he floated” in Polish can leave out the actual “he,” with the verb ending making it clear whether the subject of the verb is male or...

(The entire section is 448 words.)