Bypassing Rue Descartes

by Czesław Miłosz

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

“Bypassing Rue Descartes” is a poem thirty-five lines long and arranged in ten irregular stanzas. The poem is written in the first person, as is traditional in lyric poetry. The poet remembers a walk taken in Paris, which occasions a meditation on history, exile, and guilt. The poem has the qualities of nostalgia and intimacy that insist the poem is autobiographical rather than a portrayal of a persona.

“Bypassing Rue Descartes” (which was tellingly retitled in translation from simply “Rue Descartes”) describes a walk the poet, “A young barbarian just come to the capital of the world,” took that initiated his life as an exile from Lithuania and Poland. The title establishes a place and a locus for meditation. The poet, however, bypasses this street and figuratively bypasses what this street signifies: Cartesian certainty, with its insistence on analysis and division. Bypassing Rue Descartes, the poet descends toward the Seine, hence proposing a traditional departure from abstraction and a movement toward nature.

The poem’s first stanza establishes the poet’s place and identity. In the second stanza, the poet considers himself one among many exiled nationalities, including Poles, North Africans, and Vietnamese. Implicit in his catalog is the history of empires and colonialism. The poem continues, describing the difference between the immigrant’s customs, “About which nobody here should ever be told,” and the cosmopolitan world. While the poet is speaking from his own experience, he also is describing the condition of the exile. The poet contrasts his homeland’s “cloudy provinces” with the “universal” city he enters “dazzled and desiring.”

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, both of which are unrhymed couplets, the poet shifts to a conditional future that describes certain specific political conditions. In these lines, the tone is clipped, aphoristic, and ironic. Readers should recall that when Czesaw Miosz permanently left Poland for France in late 1951, France was the colonial power in Algeria and Vietnam. Nationalists of both these countries were active in Paris, hence many of these exiles “Would be killed because they wanted to abolish the customs of their homes.” Many of their peers were “seizing power/ In order to kill in the name of the universal, beautiful ideas.”

The poem returns to the specifics of the walk in the sixth stanza with the sensuous catalog of a street market: rustling laughter in the dark, baked breads, lemons and garlic, and wine poured from clay pitchers. These sights and sounds return the poet to the immediate and commonplace world, yet his meditations on empire and power are not mitigated, for the poet finds he is surrounded by monuments attesting periods of glory. What these monuments represent, however, is forgotten.

The final four stanzas consist of a movement toward a vision of time where empires always rise and fall. This traditional vision of fortune is then displaced by a more earthly, almost pagan, vision that “the time of human generations is not like the time of the earth.” The large vision narrows to focus on the poet, and the poem concludes with the poet’s confession of his own guilt.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

Although “Bypassing Rue Descartes” is essentially a lyric, Miosz is a poet who never rests easily in a single recognizable form. Like many of his other poems, this one is allegorical and ironic. It also shares with Miosz’s prose writing a philosophical interest in the nature of power. Because the poem continually verges on the allegorical and philosophical, and departs from the personal or lyrical, it contains elements of generalization.

The city of Paris is named through its epithet, “the capital of the world.” The city then becomes “the universal,” suggesting not only its cosmopolitan atmosphere but also its metaphysical absoluteness. It is a manifestation of idea. The poet quickly undercuts this portrayal with the personification of the city behaving in accordance with its nature (“Rustling” with laughter, “baking” breads, “pouring wine,” “buying” garlic and fish), all the while shamelessly indifferent. Though this lists the commonplace, Miosz uses its vitality and the sense of being engrossed with the transactions of life to contrast with the attraction of the exiled to the “universal.”

The poem employs the classical allegorical structure of the journey to convey meaning. Like the pilgrim Dante, the young exile Miosz makes a descending journey toward revelation. The journey from postwar Poland into exile also is implied as part of this allegorical journey. When the poet reaches the Seine and leans on the “rough granite of the embankment,” he senses he has “returned from travels through the underworlds.” Like Dante, he has witnessed the cataclysms of history. At the river’s edge, symbolically another threshold, he “suddenly saw in the light the reeling wheel of the seasons/ Where empires have fallen and those once living are now dead.” Not simply a traditional view of the vicissitudes of Fortuna, the poet assumes the role of prophet. Much in the tradition of Ecclesiastes, the poet sees the emptiness of human existence and the need for dispensations other than those offered by politics and philosophy.

If the first part of the poem can be considered ironic (the poet self-deprecatingly calls himself a “young barbarian,” which echoes Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”; the decidedly ironic repetition of “Soon enough” marks the fate of exiles involved in politics) and the second part an allegorical vision; then the third part, the last two stanzas, returns to the personal but without the opening stanzas’ ironic detachment. The poem turns to an earlier memory of a walk through a forest, where the poet encountered a water snake coiled in the grass and killed it. The poem concludes with a deeply personal memory and a profoundly symbolic image. While one may wish to assign a biblical meaning to the snake, one must note that it is a water snake and that in Lithuanian folklore these creatures are sacred; hence, it is taboo to harm them, as Miosz states in a footnote to the poem. The poem describes the poet’s exile from nature in that he has committed a transgression against life.

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