The Poem

From the Rising of the Sun is a long poem divided into six parts, each part having its own title. Czesaw Miosz has identified the poem’s title as coming from a psalm sung at vespers (evening prayers): “From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same.” The poet seems to be alluding to the beginning and end of things, to the meaning of existence as it is perceived in the poet’s life and in the life of humanity. Written in the first person, the poem is autobiographical, referring to specific events in the poet’s life but also to his vocation as a poet, which stimulates him to project into other times and places.

Part 1, “The Unveiling,” evokes the universal figure of the poet as he has existed at various times, creating his work with “a stylus, reed, quill or a ballpoint.” The poet, the speaker reminds us, has served in religious orders and labored for kings. In both his sacred and secular roles, he has divined the fate of human beings, working under a “dark-blue cloud”—a rather ominous portent of things to come—and “with a glint of the red horse”—a foreboding allusion to the apocalypse of Saint John in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.

The poet expresses distaste for his vocation, for the “odious rhythmic speech” that grips him. His intuition of disaster is contrasted with a chorus that invokes the longings of humankind for “their day/ Of power and glory.” As the poet witnesses the flight of his words, the chorus answers with a plea for an understanding of the meaning of their existence. Returning to the images of the apocalypse, introduced at the beginning of “The Unveiling,” the poet wonders whether anything in life can be made clear except its “completed fate.”

Part 2, “Diary of a Naturalist,” draws directly on the poet’s memory of his native Lithuania, of the child’s feeling for the forest that surrounds him like a family, impressing him with a sense of comfort and protection not yet shattered by an adult’s awareness of fate. Referring explicitly to human sin, to the “tree of Knowledge,” the poet launches into a lament for the lost generation, the city (Wilno), and the nation (Lithuania) of his youth. Yet the words he uses to describe his particular lost world remind him that there are other lost worlds in other languages and other places—the loss of the Indian words for places and experiences in southern Oregon, for example. Examining his childhood experience more closely, he finds an incipient awareness of the cruelty and voraciousness of nature: the “rapacious” flies devouring the “fat flesh of caterpillars,” which is not so different from the human destructiveness he finds in the image of a “burned-down city.” The poet becomes, then, a pilgrim, shuttling from place to place, visiting Sarlat (near the site in central France of the magnificent cave paintings, the earliest evidence of art), and Roc Amadour (also in France, and once a stop on the journey of medieval pilgrims), as a witness to the human search for meaning; he is also a witness to its denial, for the poet hears “no call,” no confirmation of what his mission should be.

In Part 3, “Over Cities,” the poet attempts to deny his responsibility for what he imagines happened on planet Earth: “If I am...

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Forms and Devices

Three devices make this long poem difficult but rewarding reading: the poet’s allusions to many different episodes from literature, history, myth, and religion; his manipulation of time; and his division of the poem into six parts, embodying his fluctuating feelings about his life and poetic vocation. To give the flavor of the different times and places and to strengthen the meaning of his allusions, he quotes from old documents, encyclopedias, and other texts. His poem is studded with quotations, emphasizing the written sources his memory draws upon and the bits and pieces of these different worlds that make up the poet’s consciousness.

One way to fix an interpretation of the poem is to regard the poet as moving back and forth from his present, in California, to his past, in Lithuania. The complexity of history is filtered between these two different periods in his life as he conflates Lithuania and California, implying that they are all in the eternal present of the poet’s imagination, a kind of super-reality that transcends any single place in time.

Thus the poet has in mind more than the boundaries of his personal existence. In part 5, for example, he remarks: “Well, it happened long ago, in Ecbatana/ In Edessa, if you prefer.” These two cities, one in Persia, the other in Asia Minor, are the sites of early Christian sects—of disputants, in other words, over the meaning of Christianity. The implication is that the poet’s specific experience is actually a part of everyone’s experience, and they will find it in one place, if not in the other—in Ecbatana or in Edessa. What happened long ago—the search for faith and meaning—is also happening now, just as the man in the barber chair can imagine himself to be an emperor or a czar.

The opening line of the poem is the key to understanding the poet’s sense of time: By...

(The entire section is 765 words.)