The theme of war is obvious in this poem since the word “war” is in its title. First the narrator hears the news of the war, and then she describes her reaction. She names countries where violence is threatening to destroy the people entirely, and she gives examples of the universality of hatred and power struggles. After speculating about the value of literature in a war-torn world, she also points out how people have become so used to wars that they have perhaps accepted the violence as normal and turned their attention to more trivial matters.
Role of Literature
The Italian dissident in the poem asks, “What good have all the great writers done? . . . What good your poems, / your good intentions, / your thoughts and words.” These questions have probably been asked for centuries, yet we know that every great civilization has had a body of literature and that poets, dramatists, and other storytellers have existed for thousands of years. The Greek tragedies show us that literature has more purpose than a pleasant way to pass the time; literature can be used as a vehicle for change. It can have the impact of Thomas Paine’s essays that helped start a revolution. Literature can teach, advise, console, enlighten, and incite. Literature can help us to reflect upon the past and to envision the future. Literature can have a message of such impact that “poems become missiles,” as the dissident hopes in “While I Was Gone a War Began.” Consequently, writers keep writing with the mission of proving that the pen is mightier than the sword and that the role of literature is vitally important to the question of whether civilization thrives or fails.
Fiction versus Reality
Perhaps it is a human defense mechanism to confuse fiction and reality. When the narrator of this poem hears the news about a war starting, she is not sure that the story she is hearing is real. “It seems I saw this story / in a Hollywood movie, / or on a Taco Bell commercial.” The narrator is trying to point out that life in the modern world of television, movies, and other media has blurred the lines between reality and fiction and has deadened the reaction to real disaster by making people feel as if it is not real people who are suffering and dying.
The narrator in the poem goes on to question why people even bother with fiction when reality is always so much more amazing, “after flood and rains, / drought and despair, / abrupt invasions, / disease and famine everywhere.” She mentions Revelation, which lists multiple catastrophes that will befall the earth just before the end of the world. The narrator is questioning why the gospel writer describes such terrors as a one-time event when such tribulations happen every day. How will people recognize Armageddon when such calamity is nothing new? The inference is that the horrors of reality can never be matched, and certainly not surpassed, by the inadequate imaginations of writers.
The Italian dissident in the poem declares “and now, I don’t care.” After a lifetime of fighting for his cause, he probably still cares or else he would not complain to the narrator, but he probably feels as though he has given all he can and nothing has changed. In contrast, the people who are not “scandalized by surprise bombings” may not ever have cared. They may not want to put any effort into making the world a better place as long as their own little patch of the earth is reasonably comfortable. Why care about who is bombing whom on the other side of the world? But Castillo says a bombing over any city should be considered scandalous because it violates the “sanctity of night”—that is, the sanctity of peace and peace of mind. It is an old message: we are all members of the human family and what happens to one of us happens to all of us. However, not all people believe or understand this concept and that causes the narrator’s sorrow at the end of “While I Was Gone a War Began.”
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