Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592
“Return” is a poem about a poet and the meaning of his life and work. Therefore, many of the important themes of Miosz’s poetry are at least touched upon in the poem. Miosz is a Metaphysical poet. The greater part of his work in the West has been autobiographical, in which the quintessential challenge has been the question of identity. Miosz has used his own personal experiences as stepping stones in his examination of the value of human existence. In “Return,” this exploration of meaning is linked to another recurrent theme: the analysis of one’s life as it approaches its conclusion. Miosz does not aggrandize the episodes of his life or emphasize hardships or problems. If anything, he deprecates his own history: “Somehow I waded through; I am grateful that I was not submitted to tests beyond my strength.” His, he ironically states, has been “a blindly accomplished destiny.”
Many critics have spoken of the conflict inherent in Miosz’s worldview; the poet himself calls this metaphysical dilemma his “ecstatic pessimism.” This seeming contradiction of terms is colored by the Manichaeanism inherent in Miosz’s philosophy. The world can be beautiful; the poet is fascinated by this beauty, but he knows that it is always contaminated by evil. His pessimistic evaluation in “Return” of the importance of his own life is linked to this same duality. As a poet he re-creates beautiful images, but, given the autobiographical nature of his work, a certain disappointment or dissatisfaction, even bitterness, is always present. For example, he condemns those who are trained in “slyness” but then characterizes himself sarcastically as having “grown slyly just” and praises those who have chosen suicide rather than continue participating. The mood of Miosz’s poetry swings constantly from joy to despair, from skepticism to faith, in his search for answers. The world is “horrible,” “comic,” and “senseless,” but through his poetry, which has been both the means and goal of this search, he has validated his belief in its opposite.
Miosz’s poetry has been distinguished by the persistence of memory, by the multitude of voices, and by the different levels of time that meet and diverge in the poet’s consciousness. The reader should expect the same poetic layering in “Return,” but it is not there, a fact that surprises the poet himself. Always haunted by the past, he has expected it to reach out and grab him on his return; he has even chosen a favorite spot of his youth for this blending of lives. However, in this literal return to the past, he seems to have mysteriously lost the ability to emotionally and figuratively recapture it. Away from his homeland, he has always walked with those he left behind, but here there are no “troubled spirits flying by.” The ghosts have brought him here, but now it is as if they have left him alone to answer his questions by himself. The insistent “I” of the poem defines his solitude and the stark loneliness of existence.
In an age that eschews personal responsibility, Miosz has stood out as an ethical as well as a Metaphysical poet. His own life was dramatically changed by historical forces, and thus he constantly examines the role of the individual in society. To what extent can the individual accept credit for his actions? To what extent must he accept blame? In “Return,” a sense of personal guilt is apparent as the poet concedes that his choices have led him away from the real world. Did he have a choice?