The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

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“Return,” with thematic divisions consisting of single sentences or short paragraphs, is a meditative poem whose cadence conforms more to the rhythms of prose than to those of verse. The poem is written in the first person and is autobiographical. Although the poet includes the reader in his musings, there is no doubt that the focus is on the poet’s own life experiences. In fact, “Return” can be considered an emotional history of Czesaw Miosz’s life in capsule form.

The poet has returned home to the places of his youth. They, like him, are ostensibly the same and yet not the same. The passage of time has changed all the important details. The man and his homeland are now “incomprehensibly the same, incomprehensibly different.” Standing on the shore of a lake, the poet remembers the sufferings and despair of his younger self standing on this same shore, but the experience of many years has made him realize that such pain was not his alone but the inevitable result of living in a cruel world. However, he honors the boy and all young people who have not grown “sly,” who refuse to acquiesce, and who refuse to “participate for ever.”

The middle section of the poem changes in tone as the poet deals briefly with the gifts of the world, a woman’s body, and the beauty of a lake, but this mood is fleeting as the poet almost immediately asks if it has all been worthwhile. Many of Miosz’s poems written outside his native Lithuania deal with the experiences and people of his past. At times these past voices threaten to drown out his own living voice, but in “Return,” where one might expect the poet to be surrounded by images of the past calling to him, there is, paradoxically, silence. The ghosts of the past have left him; he is the only one standing on the shore.

The last section of the poem carries with it the implicit subtext almost always present in Miosz’s later work. To fully understand a poem, the reader must be familiar with the vicissitudes of the poet’s life, such as his boyhood in Lithuania, his life under the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, and his decision to escape to the West in search of artistic freedom. For an appreciation of “Return,” this background knowledge is especially important because the conclusion of the poem not only contains Miosz’s philosophical commentary on his life (and on life in general) but also constitutes a type of poetic manifesto or “life” manifesto. Miosz’s life may have been one of “chaos and transience,” but poetry is “the changeless garden on the other side of time.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

At first glance, “Return” seems devoid of any poetic devices or images, but the apparent simplicity of the proselike lines is deceptive. What first attracts the attention is the use of the “I” in the first lines, but as the poet begins to feel the chasm between his younger and older selves, the pronoun shifts to “you” for the boy of his youth and then to “he” and “we” as all are enveloped in the evils of the world. The “I” returns as the poet individually feels the beauty of the world, but the “I” of the older man and the “you” of the boy merge in their appreciation of the gifts of life: “Only for me” and “Only for you.” While separate in suffering, they unite in joy. In the last section, only the “I” of the old man remains as he reflects on what has happened to him since he left this place so many years before.

“Return” is very representative of Miosz’s later work in its almost complete rejection of any poetic devices such as metaphor or symbol. Any attempt at versification or rhyming techniques is also absent. The two-and three-line divisions of the poem are meant to correspond to the natural flow of thought. However, also dominant in Miosz’s poetry is nature imagery, and again “Return” is no exception. What is different because of the theme of the poem (Miosz’s return home) is that all the imagery exists in the present. In other poems, similar sounds, smells, and shapes call forth correspondences to the past while the poet strives in vain, at times, to stop this sensorial stream of past consciousness. In “Return,” the opposite occurs as the poet vainly tries to use the past to orient himself in the present, but he cannot find the “traces of the lanes.”

It is characteristic of Miosz’s poetry that even in the midst of the contemplation of the most beautiful landscape there is always the bitter realization of the evil inherent in the world that beauty covers. Even in “Return,” in the contemplation of a beloved, often longed-for sight, the image of the cruel demiurge who created a “pitiless” world of “chaos and transience” appears. The poet sets apart the concept of this horror by twice repeating the question “How can it be?”; it is the only repetition of the poem. For Miosz, this evil deity is the poetic icon for the dark side, “the imperfect Nature” of his philosophical dualism; the “perfect Nature” that his poetry has tried to find is symbolized by the “changeless garden on the other side of time.”