The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692

“Brief Pause in the Organ Recital” is a lyric poem that contains twelve carefully balanced, four-line stanzas of free verse. The immediacy of the experience recounted in the poem is emphasized by the fact that almost all the verbs in the poem are in the present tense.

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The poet/speaker is attending an organ recital in a medieval cathedral. The sudden silence during a brief pause in the program breaks into his elevated mood and makes him aware of the traffic noises—“that greater organ”—outside the cathedral. He perceives that though it lacks the rigidly formal structure of the organ music to which he has been listening, the traffic noise has a freer rhythm of its own. Next, he becomes aware, as if it were part of the street noise, of the pulsing of his own blood, what he calls “the cascade that hides inside me.” The passing of a trailer-truck heavy enough to shake the six-hundred-year-old walls of the cathedral brings to mind an experience he had as a child of four: Seated on his mother’s lap, he listened to the distant voices of contending adults (“the winners and the losers”). Though he initially appears to reject the idea, he senses a similarity between the mother’s lap and the sheltering church. In effect, he is reinventing a metaphor that became a cliché in an earlier age of firm religious faith: the Church as the believer’s mother.

Gazing at the pillars that support the roof of the cathedral, he appears to rediscover a common Romantic symbol, that of nature (the forest) as a vital, protective force. The mental image that likens the interior of the cathedral to a forest serves as a transition to a remembered dream with an outdoor setting. The poet vividly relives this dream: He is standing alone in a churchyard that is surrounded by blooming heather; he is waiting for someone, a mysterious friend who is never identified, even though the dreamer soon notices that this friend has already arrived. The setting (a graveyard) and the heather (a familiar portent of death in Swedish folk tradition) suggest that the awaited friend might be Death; indeed, in the following lines, when the dream reaches its climax, the reader learns that “death turns up the lights from underneath, from the ground.” If what the dreamer is experiencing is a vision of his own death, however, it seems to hold no terrors for him. When death intensifies the purplish (heather-colored) light, that light is transformed into a color that is beyond human experience. Finally, this hue converges with the rosy light of dawn that “whines” in through the eyelids of the dreamer and awakens him. This example of synesthesia (in this case, color becoming sound) finally gains semantic content and is articulated as a word: “PERHAPS.” Tentative though it may seem, this message from beyond the grave (or from the depths of his own self) gives the poet enough hope to sustain him in this unstable world and to persuade him that he must not expect to be able to reduce it to an abstract picture—anymore than he could hope to find the blueprint of a storm.

This acceptance of uncertainty and earthly mutability leads to the poet’s final reinvention of a traditional symbol: the world as a book. He remembers that he learned to read by scanning the pages of the family encyclopedia, a book that intends to reduce the world to an abstract picture, to certainties. As a result of his dream experience, he now realizes that each individual produces a personal encyclopedia, a book of contradictions that is constantly being updated and revised by each new wave of experience. Returning to the positive image of the forest that he likened to the interior of the cathedral, the poet now uses the same image to characterize the vitality of this internal encyclopedia that is growing inside each person, as near to one as one’s blood, as dynamic as the sea. In Swedish, the poem ends with an incomplete line, as wave succeeds wave, and an ellipsis, indicating the continuation of the process.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

One of the most striking features of this poem is its extremely regular formal structure. As he frequently does in his poems, Tomas Tranströmer carefully establishes a distinct rhythmic pattern in the first stanza that he repeats with little variation throughout the remainder of the poem. The first two sentences of this poem fall into a stanzaic pattern in which two long lines (the first and the third) alternate with much shorter lines (the second and the fourth). These expanding and contracting lines may be thought of as imitating the diastolic and systolic actions of the heart, a bodily rhythm that figures importantly in this poem. (Robin Fulton’s English translation of this piece achieves a similar effect by sharpening the rhythmic contrast between the long and the short lines.) One can only guess whether the rigid metrical order of this poem is meant to suggest that the universe too has a meaningful structure.

The speaker of this poem clearly longs for some proof that life has meaning and purpose, that there is some basis for religious belief. Though Tranströmer makes little mention of overt religious observances in his poetry, many conventional religious values seem to correspond not only to his own deepest personal needs, but also to his poetic intuitions. In an interview with Richard Jones in 1979, Tranströmer speaks of his “religious longing” and of the direction in his poetry toward “some sort of cosmic feeling” (Poetry East 16, 1980). In this poem, he expresses the “cosmic feeling” by adducing a series of analogies that tend to show that nature is a nest of boxes: During a pause in the music, the speaker hears first the pulse of society, then his own pulse; finally—in the dream he so vividly relives—he thinks he hears the pulse of the universe. The traffic circulating around the cathedral is a “larger organ” that produces a music of its own, a music that is echoed in the circulation of the blood through the poet’s vascular system. The rhythmic pumping of his heart also corresponds to the regular surge of the seas, the ebb and flow of the tides that metaphorically wash through the text of the reader’s inner encyclopedia at the end of the poem. The correspondences he perceives between the rhythm of his own body and the rhythms of the outer world—evidence, in other words, that man is a harmonious part of nature—might have led Tranströmer to the facile conclusion that “God’s in his heaven—/ All’s right with the world” (Robert Browning, Pippa Passes, 1841). What prevents him from doing so is his awareness that the order he perceives is constantly at risk: Potentially disruptive or destructive energies (the cascade that hides inside him, the storm that cannot be mapped) may at any moment be unleashed.

The moment of insight comes, therefore, not from the poet’s perception of outer correspondences between man and nature but from within his own psyche—at the end of the dream that is the spiritual climax of this poem. Tranströmer, a trained psychologist, has more than a clinical interest in dreams. He believes, as one can tell from many of his poems, that dreams not only link one’s inner with one’s outer self but also enable one to penetrate more deeply into one’s essential self than is possible in the waking state. The manifest content of this dream (the churchyard, the heather, the friend he is awaiting, the way in which death “turns up the lights from underneath, from the ground”) might lead one to conclude that the dreamer has an overwhelming awareness—if not fear—of death. Tranströmer is, however, more interested in conveying the emotional impact of the dream than in interpreting it.

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Themes