From the Rising of the Sun

by Czesław Miłosz
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1357

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.

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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 responsible/ It is not for everything.” Born at a time when “locomotives ran on rails,” he was not a participant in the great trials of human beings, in the controversies over Copernicus’s and Galileo’s discoveries. As a man of history, he would yet divorce himself from it—even resist his poetic vocation: “I have always lacked words and have not been a poet/ If a poet is supposed to take pleasure in words.” Concerned about the experience of the masses in modern cities, the poet complains that the “Universal is devouring the Particular,” that individuality counts for nothing. It is a bleak vision of modern times, leavened only by a sense of continuity: “A life unendurable but it was endured,” suggests the poet, who is thinking of the fate that bound humanity in past ages as well as at the “end of the twentieth century.” The principle of individuality persists in the poet’s recollection of his childhood and of his mother offering him to Our Lady of Ostrabrama for her protection. Saved from some destiny the poet does not name, he wonders if he has “fulfilled” his duty and been of use to anyone. Perhaps because of his awareness of having been rescued for something important, the poet imagines the figure of Sir Hieronymus, apparently an eighteenth century nobleman, the cultivated man who takes the poet to a park, tells him of his adventures—opens up the world to the child, so to speak—but then disappears, leaving the poet wondering about the visit he has received, the vocation he pursues without knowing whether his course has been the right one.

Part 4, “A Short Recess,” continues to dwell on the poet’s childhood, on the “impossible” life that he nevertheless “endured.” He thinks of what he might have been, of the other self he would have become, had he been able to stop the rush of the “Heraclitean river”—an allusion to the Greek philosopher who contended it was impossible to step into the same river twice. So it is with the poet’s life, which he cannot relive although he can imagine himself remaining in his native city, Wilno, of becoming one of the town’s elders, a diplomat concluding an alliance with Ferrara, instead of traveling to “Megalopolis,” a modern mass society in which he finds no center to his life, and where he can only wonder whether life “means little/ Or much.”

Part 5, “The Accuser,” reviews the poet’s sense of his own fate, of his place after death in an encyclopedia next to a “hundred Millers and Mickey Mouse.” In a dialogue with himself, he questions the usefulness of his existence—even his contention that words have helped him deal with his grief. It is a difficult issue for a poet who sees a man in a barber’s chair getting his hair and sideburns trimmed, dreaming of himself as a great man, an emperor or a czar, imprisoned in “Ego.” It would be good to have some “ritual of purification through the columns of a temple,” the poet suggests, invoking ancient history and humankind’s need to find a way out of its own corruption. Yet, the poet ends this part by asking, “Where? When? For whom?—” again implying his doubts about his own authority.

Part 6, “Bells in Winter,” again projects the poet into an alternative existence: Traveling in the Carpathian mountains, he is hailed by a man in “Greek raiment,” calling himself the man chastised by Saint Paul for having “stolen my father’s wife.” Explicitly noting that he has not had this experience in actuality, the poet suggests that he “could have,” and that he speaks for the imperfectness of human experience. From this hypothetical episode he moves to an account of a real experience of his student days on “Literary Lane” in Wilno. He tells of the old servant woman, Lisabeth, whose religious faith is linked with the “Egyptian division of the Louvre,” a grander but by no means more important manifestation of a belief in the hereafter—a belief the poet contemplates, calling it apokatastasis. This word appears in the Bible, signifying “reverse movement” or restoration, a sense that one can return to the past, that the significance of the poet’s experience lies both “in time and when time shall be no more.” Recognizing that through the ages there has been this faith in eternal salvation, in a time when human experience will be recast and purified, the poet nevertheless admits his failure to accept the end of the world and its renewal, ending his poem with a confession of his doom: “I was judged for my despair because I was unable to understand this.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 765

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 picking up various writing instruments developed in different periods of history, he is simultaneously taking on the imagination of those times—the stylus and the reed corresponding to his references to ancient art and writing; the quill to later, but still premodern, periods of history, such as the eighteenth century world of snuffboxes and Sir Hieronymus; the ballpoint pen to the world of “Megalopolis.”

Each part of the poem expresses a tension between past and present, between the poet and his past selves, and between the meaning he wishes to find in the world and his lack of faith. Part 1, “The Unveiling,” is a statement of the problem: “I begin, though nobody can explain why and wherefore.” The poet is described as a diplomat or courier bringing meaning to the world (Miosz once held such a position in Poland) without being sure of his warrant for doing so. Part 2, “Diary of a Naturalist,” literally contains a diary or passage from a naturalist, but it is also a fond memory of childhood, when the bond between the poet’s early self and nature had not yet been broken; his feelings about nature are his diary, so to speak. Part 3, “Over Cities,” returns the poet to urban experience, to human conflict in which humankind has argued over the nature of the world; it is a world that takes away everything from humans: “Crossed out. All our treasures,” the poet concludes. Part 4, “A Short Recess,” begins with a vivid image of himself at a school recess, standing under a wall in “chubby meditation,” a powerful image of what he was but could not remain. The recess the poet calls is a recess from history, if only momentarily, to contemplate the image of the self he would have become if he had not left Wilno. Part 5, “The Accuser,” is built around a dialogue with the poet’s challenger, the one who is skeptical that poetry has created order or been “of help,” and who can be looked upon as the poet’s alter ego. Part 6, “Bells in Winter,” is organized around the memory of Wilno’s bells, calling people to worship—even in winter, the bleakest of seasons and yet a season of faith—and prompting the poet to express his own sense of the future, while acknowledging the bleakness of his own hopes.

This intricate six-part structure is suggestive of the tensions between hope and despair that inform each part of the poem, for no part of it—even in isolation—is dominated by a single mood; but is rather a microcosm of the whole, of the poet’s conflicted feelings about himself and existence.

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