Joseph Wittlin

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Zoya Yurieff

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3628

To paraphrase poetry is a difficult and ungrateful task. However, if we are to afford the foreign reader a real insight into the spiritual-creative world of [Joseph Wittlin], the author of the Hymns, we must resort to this device. We must begin by stating that they are pervaded with a sense of metaphysical longing, and intense personal experience: they read more like prayers than poems and they were so read by Wittlin's contemporaries. The Hymns are not devoid, however, of doubts and contradictions, even blasphemy. Their main theme is war, which forms a general background against which the abovementioned feelings are dynamically developed. War and Death are great tryers of the spirit. Wittlin's Hymns appeal for peace and for mankind to abandon their weapons. The author calls for repentance and a return to faith in God, thereafter a new future for mankind. Some of his hymns reflect the spirit of a crusader (the crusaders, after all, did sing hymns!) and of a penitent, rebellious, sinful, and yet blissful poet-prophet, who has experienced God's grace upon himself and his lyre, and would like to see others converted to the faith he has been granted. (pp. 22-3)

The tone of the Hymns ranges from one of despair, rebellion and blasphemy to that of psalmodic serenity and Christian humility…. [Wittlin] succeeds in harmonizing all these dissonant tones into an impressive and very musical whole. The change from a distracted cry to a quiet, intimate tone, almost that of a whisper, is reflected in the arrangement of Part I of the Hymns….

The book is divided into three parts. In Part I a young and immature poet, unable and unwilling to restrain himself, cries out his feelings…. He is representative not only of his own generation but of the entire human race, which had endured the hell of war. (p. 23)

"The Hymn to a Spoonful of Soup" describes in simple, unadorned, but poignant diction the wretched plight of a foot soldier doomed to perish who has asked for a spoonful of hot soup, which the poet would have liked to give to him, but it was already too late…. An ironic reply to the question of why the simple foot soldier had to perish is given in the next hymn, "Burying an Enemy."… The author of the hymn was told to bury an enemy because the design of his cap and buttons are those of the enemy, even though his hand is as hurt and tired as the hand of a brother. The poet has been seized by a sudden sympathy for the unknown soldier. He feels that his heart has been poisoned, and that when the burial is finished he has turned into a stone. A blend of sympathy, grief, abhorrence, irony and scorn is artfully woven together in simple, poignant words and rhythms, which take on the musical structure characteristic of soldiers' songs and funeral marches. There is also a vision of a "peasant paradise," written in quasipastoral tones and framed in the characteristic three-line stanzas of Polish church songs, which sums up the essential message, of Wittlin's Hymns. It is a paradise in which everyone, people of all nations … will embrace each other…. Here Wittlin's youthful, utopian faith in the possibility of influencing people through poetry and song is still intact. But Part II of the Hymns already shows a waning of this belief. (pp. 24-5)

Part II of the Hymns … is devoted to more intimate, but no less explosive emotions….

"A Hymn of Restlessness, Madness and Boredom" … gives poignant expression to the author's...

(This entire section contains 3628 words.)

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feelings of nausea, restlessness, and boredom. Although written 15 or more years before Sartre's celebratedLa Nausée (1936), it already has an existentialist ring. The emotional intensity of the hymn is fully Expressionistic and the author's emotions are clad in plastic and dynamic images. He does not want to accept the world around him, he searches for its raison d'être, for a solution to his longings and his thoughts, only to find that there is no limit to either. He tries to seize the moment when the miracle he has waited for since childhood would occur. But in vain: the happiness for whose sake he has "learned how to think and speak" eludes him. There is no end to the anguish caused by his longings, no stilling of all the unknown forces which slumber in his body and soul…. (p. 27)

This mood of hopelessness and restlessness persists also in the "Hymn of Fire."… (p. 29)

Part III of the Hymns contains "Non-Hymns" as a counterpart to the Hymns. It shows the versatility of the young poet, whose lyre is capable of various tones and tunes. "Non-Hymns" point to the future line of Wittlin's development as a poet…. [However], the issues of faith and doubt, despair and serenity of soul, appear in the "Non-Hymns" as well. Three short epigrammatic poems close the volume. "Blanks" shows the poet's dissatisfaction with existing linguistic and artistic methods and devices, especially with worn-out words and rhymes. In this poem he uses blanks (…) for those cliché rhymes that everyone will be able to fill in without much thought. Wittlin has battled strenuously against words even slightly suspect of descending into "clichédom" and against the automatic repetition of "empty words" (the title of one of his essays). Some of these worn-out words were laughed out of existence precisely by Wittlin and others who were equally sensitive to the deadening of the living Polish language. Thus Wittlin developed the practice of putting "so-called" in front of every word or phraseological unit that has become worn out by over-usage. There is no end to the ironic effects he achieves in this way in his poems and essays alike. (p. 31)

The Hymns are oratorical or rhetorical in structure, though they have some narrative and descriptive features as well. It has been said that epic elements are more prevalent in them than lyrical ones but the Hymns contain so many emotional elements and lyrical apostrophes, so many "mindscapes," every description in them is so subordinated to the mood of the lyrical "I" that one should consider them as predominantly lyrical…. The world is portrayed in a synthetic way, typical of a lyrical presentation. There are only a few concrete, epic details and these are submerged beneath lyrical vehemence, grandiose poetic visions, symbols and images. Details are often exaggerated, in keeping with the poetics of Expressionism. The Hymns are directed to an imaginary audience or to specific individuals (cf. "To the Adversary") with the aim of impressing them, trying to make them share the author's beliefs and even act accordingly (the Expressionists' goal). Wittlin's oratorical style is characterized by frequent parallelisms of various kinds (thematic, syntactic, lexical), by questions, exclamations, exhortations. It is often hyperbolic, saturated with images and similes, rather extended, made dramatic by plastic visions and metamorphoses (as in the "Hymn of Hatred"). The tone changes from lyrical-apostrophic to satirical-sarcastic, the volume from a shriek to a whisper. The unity of the structure is achieved by the unity of the themes which encompass God, War, the human soul after the war and the lyrical "I." (pp. 32-3)

Unity is also achieved by the composition of the whole. The basic device seems to be a repetition of the main motif or of several motifs which are closely related and it reminds one of a musical composition where a leitmotif appears, disappears and reappears in different variations. The basic motif may be given at the very beginning, in the opening verse (capoverso), as in "Burying an Enemy," where the author says that "his heart is poisoned," and repeated at the very end with a variation, thus framing the whole structure: "In vain am I carrying around my poisoned heart…." (p. 33)

The oratorical style presupposes the choice of solemn words, an archaic syntax, and an extensive use of tropes and figures. Wittlin uses archaic words and archaic syntactic constructions to a moderate degree, combining them for greater expressiveness with everyday and sometimes even vulgar words (cf. "In Praise of the Sword"). There are some dialectisms for the sake of stylization, as in "Burying an Enemy." Wittlin shows great mastery in creating clusters of words around the key words of the poem, thus extending their meaning, reinforcing the texture and making possible smooth transition between the stanzas…. Of all the various types of metaphor, Wittlin especially favors and shows unusual skill in using personifications. He possesses a mythic imagination even though both his precursors Homer and Kasprowicz use a great deal of anthropomorphization as well…. Personifications make Wittlin's poetic world highly dynamic, expressive and dramatic. Everything comes alive and acts—not only objects but the most abstract concepts: abstract words predominate over concrete in the Hymns. (pp. 35-6)

Wittlin uses free verse rhythms—in the appropriately chosen form of hymns with great mastery. His immediate models in the use of free verse were Kasprowicz and Verhaeren. His rhythms convey all the minute fluctuations of emotion, they carry its ebb and flow with great ease. He does not borrow ready-made rhythms; his blood longs for "new rhythms" and he often achieves them. His rhythms are usually appropriate to his subject matter. (p. 37)

The meaning of Wittlin's Hymns—indeed of his poetry as a whole—lies in their religious sense, in the yearning of a hard-pressed soul for happiness and communion with God. We constantly sense the poet's fear that the human soul as a result of World War was deteriorating and reaching the state which was described in an expressionistic way as "man's defection from God," as "the extreme consequence of lack of sympathy." (pp. 38-9)

Wittlin's [First World War] experiences became the core of [The Salt of the Earth] which was designed to examine and to destroy the war myth, to laugh it out of existence, by turning it into absurdity. (p. 70)

Comparisons have been drawn between The Salt of the Earth and War and Peace. Even at first glance, however, there are more observable differences between the two books than similarities. The most significant difference concerns the two writers' very dissimilar artistic techniques. Tolstoy is a meticulous collector of the details which make up life in all its rich variety; he thereby creates a vast complex artistic "field of vision." Wittlin, on the other hand, works as a poet: he synthesizes his material, crystallizing it into a few words which are sustained and accentuated by the rhythm of his language. This does not preclude a certain epic rozlewnosc (prolix style) nor a lyrical linking of material on the associative principle. Thus, to understand and to enjoy the depth of meaning and art of Wittlin's prose, we must read very attentively—just as attentively as we read poetry, without skipping a single word…. (p. 74)

Wittlin's book is an attempt to modernize the epic; he has chosen a familiar theme—the conduct of men during a great upheaval, treating it in a new way. The traditional epic devices such as prologue and epilogue, the commencement in medias res, the intrusion of supernatural powers, the use of dreams and omens, wide-ranging "broad-view" pictures, the leisurely presentation of details, "die Totalität der Objekte" (in Hegel's phrase), extended metaphors and similes, stock epithets, are all present in The Salt of the Earth, but they usually serve a different function. At times the grand style demanded by every definition of the epic is here applied to some insignificant events, thereby creating a tension between manner and matter; or, sometimes the language may be dignified and poetic, even shot through with pathos, and then, all of a sudden, display a mocking intent. In this respect Wittlin's style resembles that of the great nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. (pp. 75-6)

In a manner imperceptible to the untrained eye, Wittlin introduces a mythology of his own. He is at his best not where he tries to be a scholar and meticulous researcher in the style of Flaubert, who liked to check every detail against scientific treatises or archaeological findings, but rather where he gives free rein to his imagination and reconstructs not the historical but the "mythico-historical process." (p. 77)

The poetic intensity and artful simplicity of The Salt of the Earth make it a powerful mode of persuasion (a traditional prerogative of poetry) without the author's forcing his own ideology upon us. Composing his work more like a saga than a novel, Wittlin achieves an almost lyrical cohesion and compactness by using the associative principle of linking and interweaving the component parts. Various motifs—those of the Unknown Soldier, of War, of Death and the Devil—are combined to merge with, and overlay, each other. Minor motifs like those of Fear, of Treason, of the right and the left hand, follow suit reinforcing the already tight and condensed structure. The author achieves tension through subtly underscoring the main points of his vision by abundant ironies and ambiguities…. [He] sets about creating from the very beginning of the book the atmosphere of a world on its way out, using various motifs and devices, and replacing the dynamics of plot with the dynamics of style and language. (p. 82)

As for the problems of the characters and the setting or background of the book, it is difficult to decide … who or what is the hero and who or what forms the background. Peter Niewiadomski is in such close communion with his natural environment that he and the other Huculs whose presence we feel are virtually inseparable from it…. Could not Peter and the other Huculs be thought of as a kind of setting, a background against which historical events are projected by the author? Is not the chief conflict of the book between the earth (and everything which is on it and which grows out of it) and war—the cataclysm which fatally affects this earth? (pp. 97-8)

The War, the historical event on which Wittlin focuses his attention, is portrayed by him with such vividness and plasticity that it assumes the shape of a real protagonist…. War is personified; it is even accompanied by the old symbol of evil—the snake. We notice this with the first appearance of Corporal Durek … and we see it also in the comparison of the war telegrams to snake coils…. We see the encroachment of war upon everything and everybody, its dynamic development, its sweeping over places and people alike, its "life" which in the two later volumes of the trilogy is to end in its "death," the date of which we know from history…. The War is afforded a more thorough treatment in the book than are other characters who are here not portrayed from birth to death, as is often done in novels. (pp. 99-100)

Wittlin's prose has the compactness of poetry. Every component is related to other components; all details eventually converge to compose a portrait or convey some symbolic meaning…. The density of Wittlin's prose, where every thread reinforces the texture, adding another link to the total continuity, makes it difficult to distinguish between the more and the less important elements in the book, or to define precisely the nature of his craftsmanship.

How does he, for instance, achieve his effects in revealing to us the psychological depths of a human soul? What about the characterizations, aside from the fact that they are so close to his background? Despite the fact that the two principal "heroes," Peter Niewiadomski and Rudolph Bachmatiuk, could well be regarded as personified ideas at almost every turn of the book, their primary importance being as instruments to expose the absurdity of the institution of war from two opposed vantage points: that of one who knows nothing about war and that of one who knows all about it; they can also be seen, especially Bachmatiuk, as splendid character studies. They show the keenness of the author's observation and a fine insight into human or, in Bachmatiuk's case, inhuman nature. The latter has been drawn (overdrawn, perhaps) with masterful and prophetic strokes. The Bachmatiuks served in all armies not only in World War I but also in World War II with still more disastrous results. (pp. 100-01)

[In] his depiction of characters Wittlin does not use linguistic characterization and deliberately avoids dialogue. (p. 102)

However, in The Salt of the Earth we do have an "interior monologue" of Peter. It contains Peter's rationalizations concerning God and the Emperor…. This internal monologue contains several features of linguistic characterization which have been lost in translation.

The style of The Salt of the Earth remains its most striking feature for the native reader. Thus the "microanalysis" of Wittlin's text presents difficulties when based on a translation, for we cannot discuss sentence structure, rhythm and all the other sound effects which play a major role in the book. The varying length of sentences and clauses, the smooth and graceful placement of words (Polish unlike English, has no compulsory word order), his so-called inversions and repetitions (especially triple ones)—all this has a rhythmical impact on the native reader who is captivated by this particular kind of prose almost as much as he is by the hexameters of Wittlin's Odyssey. One could point to the use of leitmotifs; one could even speak of certain recurring rhythmical units of a kind usually considered the prerogative of poetry. Wittlin's prose is permeated with alliterations, assonances, anaphoras and other rhythmic and melodic effects. Leitmotifs frequently serve as links in the chain of continuity (The leitmotif of "waiting for the war's end" is repeated in several chapters). Sometimes they stress a thought of special concern to the author, or serve to reinforce the emotional impact of a phrase or image. Wittlin composed for the eye as well as for the ear; he tries to eternalize the living word, to strike the right tone in every sentence. This rhythmical organization of language helps the author to harmonize such diverse elements as archaisms, neologisms, dialect words and phrases, and to bring his prose close to poetry. So, too, does his highly poetic concentration, where almost every sentence has its point and the similes and metaphors extend and reverberate as they should in any good epic and poetic work. (pp. 103-04)

[Another element is Wittlin's] personification of war to the degree that it actually becomes a dramatis persona of the book. War which comes over to the embankment in black boots and confronts Peter … is a metonymy: it is not the war as such who comes but merely an official carrying the summons to war. But Wittlin's hand creates a new mythical figure not unlike a new god of war, or the messenger of a Greek god, who is geared with mocking irony by the author to the contemporary scene, revealing its bureaucratic and unpoetic nature as soon as he opens his mouth … with a golden tooth. Even before the war spreads metonymically, assuming different forms, the station master, who learns of its outbreak from the telegraph, disentangles himself from "coils of paper covered with Morse Code" and shakes "the war from his feet."… (p. 110)

Wittlin uses both metaphor and metonymy with equal effectiveness. He is especially good at substituting a state of mind or emotion for the people who are in its grip, thus creating from such an abstraction a separate entity imbued with ephemeral life. Terror, Fear, Aggression, Revolt, Treason, Language—all these live, move, act as if quite separate from those whom they characterize. (pp. 110-11)

In his role as a poet, however, Wittlin seems to be attracted more by metaphor, perhaps because it gives him an opportunity to exploit the multivocality and ambiguity of words, as is more often the case in poetry than in "straight" prose. The same ambiguity is at the root of puns which are quite frequent in The Salt of the Earth. (pp. 111-12)

Irony, parody, the grotesque, puns, as we find them in The Salt of the Earth would often be out of place in an old-fashioned epic, but they help to make this book a new kind of epic, an epic of the twentieth century…. Wittlin destroyed the myths of the mighty Emperor and of the "unknown soldier" as these have been officially propagated. In creating his saga of the patient foot-soldier he erected a fine monument to one of the sons of the "Hucul earth" and all the other "sons" for whom Peter stands. The Salt of the Earth is a finished work of art in which the whole structure and the compositional unity encompasses everything down to the minutest detail, in which all dissonances are resolved into harmony. Nothing is lost, nothing is too small for an author who knows how to achieve unity by manipulating microscopic particles into a whole. The coming of doom is evoked by means of "moribund" metaphors which point to the philosophy of the work, and not by the novelist's direct statements. In The Salt of the Earth the author knows how to preserve the "fiction" of a novel, even what appears to be a historical novel, by presenting events in chronological order and using many authentic details. But what the modern reader most values are some of the "moments" described; for example that of the signing of the Declaration of War in the Prologue, which seems to last forever and thereby to have become indelible. The reader will never forget the little station of Topory-Czernielica, a microcosm lovingly created by an artist who knew how to reproduce its soul, which grows in dimensions to represent the soul of the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire and perhaps even of the whole world. (pp. 112-13)

Zoya Yurieff, in his Joseph Wittlin (copyright © 1973 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1973, 175 p.


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