Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Brief Pause in the Organ Recital” is a poem about religious experience. Though the words “mystic” and “mysticism” are often applied to Tranströmer and his work, it is important to notice that no revelation, no vision bringing certainty, is vouchsafed to the speaker of this poem. The dream that leads him to affirm the world with “an unshakable PERHAPS” can best be characterized as a secular epiphany or a moment of extraordinary insight.

The cessation of the music enables the poet to hear the traffic outside the cathedral. In Tranströmer’s poetic vocabulary, “traffic” usually symbolizes human intercourse at all levels—the social order and its contextual situation in time and space. The vaguely disturbing murmur of the traffic outside becomes more threatening when the rumble of a heavy trailer-truck causes the cathedral walls to tremble, and the poet immediately associates this with a similarly jarring experience that he had when he was four: Then, safely seated on his mother’s lap, he was protected from social discord. These two images (the sheltering cathedral walls and the mother’s lap) help the poet define the barrier between the safe inner world and the menacing world outside, a characteristic concern of Tranströmer’s. In the interview mentioned above, he said, “I like border regions. I am interested in borders and I am always writing on the borderline—the borderline between the inner world and the outer world. I call this borderline ‘the truth barrier’because that’s the point where you can see the truth.”

The sudden silence also enables him to cross another border. Listening to the beating of his pulse, he becomes aware that, like the music, it too will someday stop. Will it be only a short pause? Placed on the borderline between life and death, the poet finds new meaning in a dream he once had: Alone in a...

(The entire section is 769 words.)