Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

“On Prayer” is part of a sequence entitled “Consciousness” in a volume that is organized as a single sequence—a pastiche of poetry, prose reflections, quotations from various sources, and fragments of letters. Central to the volume as a whole is Miosz’s sense of the ongoing struggle, through the limitations of mind and language, between the knowledge of God’s presence and the existence of evil in the world. The historical realities of the twentieth century—war, genocide, and oppression on a scale never before known—underscore, for Miosz, the paradox of belief. As he suggests, “While respecting tradition and recognizing analogies, we must remember that we are trying to name a new experience”—that of finding a moral position compatible with the experience of the present.

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Miosz’s position is reflected in his dual perspective, which brings the abstract into continual, and necessary, conjunction with quotidian reality. “On Prayer” illustrates this in a number of ways. On one level, there is the description of prayer in material terms, the embodiment of an act of faith in the language of unbelief. On another level, Miosz presents his desire to move away from this existence, to transcend the things of this world; then he links this irrevocably with the limitations of “the shore of Reversal,” an image that turns the transcendent impulse back toward humanity. In “On Prayer,” one can observe this paradox in the formal construction of the poem, in the concrete and lyrical nature of the imagery, and in the argument itself. In the nature of the reversal upon which the poem hinges, one sees a desire never to leave the reality of this world behind. Explorations into the nature of one’s relation to God must always, for Miosz, involve an incorporation of the entanglements of the flesh, must reconcile the realities of the human condition with the sense of a divine order.

While “On Prayer” shares with many other Miosz poems this sense of an epiphany, an unexpected revelation of the nature of being, it is balanced by a recognition that this vision ultimately leads back to humanity. The emphasis in line 6 on the word “is,” the singular present form of the verb “to be,” indicates Miosz’s acknowledgment of the human experience of individuality, the fixation with the present, and also the element of hope that being involves. Notably, the redefinition at the center of this consciousness is not imposed from without, but rather entails a recognition of one’s essential nature. Giving being an anthropomorphic focus instead of an otherworldly one, Miosz maintains his human-centered vision.

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