Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

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The overriding and unifying theme of “To Raja Rao” is exile, but exile of a very complex kind. In its simplest form, the exile is personal and cultural. Having lived for two decades in self-imposed exile, first in Paris and then in Berkeley, Miosz has become something of a displaced person. Contrasting the gregariousness that characterizes his European past with the loneliness of his more recent Western and especially American experience, he feels dispossessed, foreign, and, above all, “other.” “Somewhere else,” he believes, there exists the “real presence” that his American life lacks.

The personal dimension of Miosz’s exile borders on the political. The unnamed Poland nostalgically evoked in stanzas 2, 3, and 4 gives way to a more pragmatic realization of the Stalinist tyranny that characterizes the modern Poland Miosz fled in 1951; that, in turn, leads him from nostalgic reverie to futuristic fantasy—the dream of a “permanent polis,” perhaps not unrelated to the “messianic hope” which has long been a part of the Polish national identity and so is a part of the poet’s own identity as well.

Far from curing him of his “malady,” Miosz’s pragmatic accommodation to his new (nominally or at least geographically American) life in fact deepens his predicament as exile, adding psychological and, more importantly, spiritual layers to the cultural and political ones already described. The shame he feels as the result of having failed “to be/ what I should have been” leads Miosz to image himself in terms of a still deeper schizophrenia. “The image of myself,” he writes, “grows gigantic on the wall/ and against it/ my miserable shadow.” As this powerful passage, with its echoes of Isaiah and T. S. Eliot, makes clear, the shame derives from the guilt that Miosz has said is “central” to his poetry. It is this guilt that leads Miosz to accept the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin from which that same shame and guilt may be said themselves to derive. (The doctrine also connects Miosz’s contemporary predicament with that of the earliest exiles, Adam and Eve.) Thus considered, Miosz feels homeless because this fallen world is not his home, spiritually speaking. In Miosz’s case, however, the generalized spiritual predicament of all people exists side by side with a decidedly personal sense of Miosz’s own individual guilt—specifically the guilt of the survivor of Nazi and Stalinist tyranny.

Miosz acknowledges his human unworthiness and his own sinful nature—the monsters that trouble his dreams and show him his essence. His search for home, for an end to exile, parallels his search for direct forms, for a truth in and beyond expression. It is a search for forms that becomes a search for a firm foundation upon which to base human existence. In embracing his exile, his Catholic faith, his Polish-Lithuanian identity, his agony, and his dis-ease, Miosz offers an assertion and affirmation of “what I am” as an alternative to all forms of “totalitarian terror,” however beguiling those visions may be before they turn into the nightmares of history.