City Without a Name

by Czesław Miłosz

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Themes and Meanings

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The dominant theme of “City Without a Name” is self-definition. This questioning of identity, which has been paramount in all of Miosz’s work since his relocation to the West, is strongly linked to the inward musings of a man in the twilight of his years. However, “City Without a Name” is not an egocentric poem. In fact, if the poet can affirm anything, it is that individuality is, paradoxically, communal. One must be defined by the past and, above all, by the people who share that past. In his book Radzinna Europa (1958; Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, 1968), Miosz speaks of a “world defined by memory” in which “each experience branches into a series of associations, demands to be given permanency, to be linked up with the whole.”

Nevertheless, the admission of such a perspective does not automatically bring acceptance. At times the poet gratefully relives the past or grudgingly perceives its importance, but, in other, blacker moments, he rails against the fact that he may only be the medium through which other experiences are filtered. He is afraid that the past may overwhelm the present, and, when past images begin to dominate, when he loses the present and only gains the past, he strikes out with anger and sarcasm. He cannot reconcile what is with what was. This striving for reconciliation is the corollary to the main theme of self-definition as the poem charts the poet’s struggle to find the meaning of his life, to find his own place and time amid the multitude of voices and times that assail him. He has run through his life just as he is now running though the images of memory looking for the “last door,” the one that will open on to knowledge and reconciliation, joining everything as one. At times he despairs of ever finding an answer: “And the gift was useless, if, later on, in the flarings of distant nights, there was not less bitterness but more.” However, soon after this sad statement, the poem finishes with an entirely different perspective. Many critics have spoken of the epiphanies present in Miosz’s poems, the sudden moments of intuitive clarity in which his “last door” starts to open. “City Without a Name” ends with such a moment as the poet, who has striven to define his life and bring into harmony past and present, suddenly stands mute before images of a peaceful death and the sound of music. He does not want to speak; he does not want to define. Perhaps the experience, the feeling, is the harmony.

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