Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804
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 “us.” The reader and speaker are experiencing the same scene together.
As with most of Szymborska’s poems, “View with a Grain of Sand” examines and undermines common, everyday perceptions. Szymborska looks at the ordinary and taken for granted and shows how they are astonishing as well. She embraces the Pascalian notion of human consciousness—that consciousness is what defines humans and separates humans from not only the inanimate universe but also other life forms. As Blaise Pascal’s universe remains “unaware,” so does that of Szymborska. All awareness lies with the human observer. In Pascal’s view of consciousness, dignity and higher nobility are found in this human awareness.
The poem begins with a falling grain of sand, echoing William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” (wr. 1803; pb. 1863), which also famously begins with a grain of sand. Here, Blake is showing how something seemingly insignificant can actually be infinite, and that the unimportant can be more significant than what is normally considered important or significant. While Szymborska agrees with Blake—that nothing is simply ordinary—she examines the ordinary from the perspective of human perception and expression. One might look at that grain of sand as Blake does, and see a “world” in it, but Szymborska insists that perception is just an illusion. The grain of sand does not “know” that it is this thing called sand: It does not need a name and can exist without “knowing” it has a name. The grain of sand, also, does not know whether it is falling or motionless, or that it is “somewhere.” Naming and placing are human conventions—they mean nothing to an inanimate object and do not affect its existence. It does not care, because it does not know to care.
The poem continues as the speaker sees the grain of sand falling (unknowingly) upon a windowsill. Through the window the speaker has a wonderful view of a nearby lake. However, the view does not know it is a view. It is a wonderful view only to a human observer. Next comes a description of four of the five human senses—sight (“colorless, shapeless”), hearing (“soundless”), smell (“odorless”), and touch (“pain”). The view from the window exists without feeling; hence, it exists without pain. Singling out pain here is deliberate, for if Szymborska had said, for example, that the view does not know its own “beauty” and exists “joylessly,” readers simply might have felt sorry for the view. That it exists painlessly, instead, implies that there could be an upside to not having awareness. The line reminds readers that perceived pain is actually an illusion, formed by consciousness creating its own awareness.
Next, the speaker contemplates the lake itself. The lake also does not know it exists as a particular, unique thing. It does not know it has dimensions, that it is wet, or that its waves make sounds. All the defining properties assigned to the lake by humans have no meaning to the lake itself; they only have meaning to the human mind. Likewise, the sky above is inherently “skyless”; there is no sky for the lake. The speaker discusses how in the skyless sky the sun does not really set; it is human perception that sees a setting sun. The skyless sky, too, does not knowingly hide behind unaware clouds, and the wind blows with no consciousness of its blowing.
Szymborska shows that the metaphors humans apply to inanimate objects can be misleading. This is even truer when applied to intangible things such as time. “One second” is an arbitrary unit of time, created by humans. Time has no awareness of its own passing; it has no “inner” units of measurement. “Time,” too, is often spoken of in anthropomorphic terms. However, those terms are merely human creations. Time is not a conscious being; that it “rushes by,” for example, is only perceived by humans.
One reason for Szymborska’s influence and popularity is her ability to tackle existential puzzles masterfully in concise, straightforward, and accessible language. In “View with a Grain of Sand,” the puzzle she examines is human perception and communication, especially the making of metaphors. Metaphors are central to reasoning, and essential to the language of poetry.