View with a Grain of Sand by Wisława Szymborska

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Introduction

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“View with a Grain of Sand” is a poem of thirty-seven lines grouped into seven stanzas that range from four to seven lines each. In both Polish and English, the poem exhibits occasional irregular rhymes, although these are not the same lines in both versions. (For example, the fourth stanza rhymes the second and fourth lines in Polish and the first and second line in English.) Like much of Wisawa Szymborska’s poetry, the language in “View with a Grain of Sand” sounds like everyday conversation, differing from prose or ordinary speech only in very subtle rhythms and patterns of sound.

The speaker of the poem may be Szymborska herself, although such an identification does not affect the meaning conveyed or the impression formed by the poem. This speaker pictures a lake and its surroundings, beginning with a grain of sand from the shore. She mentions that the sand is complete in and of itself and that it is not affected by people touching it, talking about it, or dropping it on a windowsill; these things pertain solely to human experience. The speaker then considers the window that overlooks the lake but that has nothing to do with the lake itself except in human perception. The poem reminds its readers that the “wonderful view” exists only in the individual mind, as do colors, sounds, odors, and, most strikingly, pain. Szymborska’s speaker goes on to say essentially the same thing about the lake, that it knows nothing of the attributes people associate with it. She adds that the lake lies beneath both a sky similarly unaffected by human thoughts or feelings and the sun that “hides” behind clouds and “sets” beyond the horizon but which, she reminds readers, neither truly hides nor actually sets. By bringing up these two particular figures of speech, common not only in Polish and English but also in many other languages, Szymborska quietly suggests that human perceptions of “reality” often prove to be highly illusory in nature since the sun only seems to behave as human beings describe it as behaving. Citing such a commonly known fact strengthens the message Szymborska conveys: People’s ideas are not accurate reflections of the world around them.

Finally, the speaker discusses the passage of time, which seems to rush by as if carrying an important message for someone, but again she points out that such perceptions are the result of human imagination. Time does not rush; it simply exists as do the lake and sun. The personification of time is merely the result of human thought at work. Through repetition, the poem reinforces the thought that it is the human desire to appreciate and understand the world that is responsible for the interpretations people place upon the physical universe. In his afterword to Szymborska’s poetry collection Nothing Twice (1997), translator and poet Stanisaw Barañîczak explains that Szymborska is a poet who often asks questions that she does not attempt to answer. Instead, she seems to focus on challenging her readers’ assumptions as if the questions themselves are more interesting than any possible answers. In “View with a Grain of Sand,” she makes readers wonder if the ideas they associate with the world around them have any meaning at all and ask why humans tend to see only themselves in the rest of the universe.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Wisawa Szymborska’s “View with a Grain of Sand” is a thirty-seven-line metaphysical and existential poem comprising seven irregular stanzas that vary between four and seven lines. The poem has no regular meter or rhyme scheme. Poetic meaning often does not survive translation, given that it is difficult to translate the rhythms, rhyme, tone, idioms, and puns created in another language. However, because Szymborska writes with clear, straightforward language, English translations of her poetry tend to be faithful to the original.

The poem is told from the point of view of an anonymous speaker using the familiar and inclusive “we” and “our” and...

(The entire section is 1,361 words.)