Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 432 words.)