The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“With Trumpets and Zithers” is an extended meditation on physical being and on the relationship of the particular to the abstract. It is divided into eleven sections, each of which consists of an irregular number of long lines of free verse.

The title invokes musical instruments of a biblical origin. Trumpets and zithers are found both in books of prophecy, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, where they signal outbursts of energetic vision or ecstasy, and in books of hymnal praise, such as the Song of Solomon or Psalms, where they serve as sweet musical accompaniment to rhapsody. A trumpet blast also marks, in the New Testament book of Revelation, the onset of apocalypse, the fulfillment of divine justice and the end of time.

Czessaw Miosz’s poem is difficult to describe sequentially or in summary because it lacks a single, coherent narrative. It is certainly rhapsodic, visionary and, in a sense, apocalyptic, but there is no one action or directed argument that can be said to unify the poem. Indeed, one of Miosz’s aims is to emphasize the particular and the individual over and above any general sense of unity. There is, however, clearly an overarching emphasis in this poem on the interrelated issues of poetic expression, the function and shape of divinity, and humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

The poem begins with a “gift.” Miosz praises the variety and energy of life and creation, kneeling to “kiss the earth” with gratitude for having received consciousness and breath. That “gift,” he says, “was never named.” To name a thing is to comprehend it. Like Adam, Miosz can assign a catalog of names to objects and beings in the world around him—as he proceeds to do, poetically, in this first section—but he cannot name or identify exactly the essential primal impulse that allowed him to perceive, to know, and to be. Creation, at its heart, escapes the limited capacities of human language.

In the second section, the reader discovers the poet aboard a descending airplane at night. Afforded a panorama of creation below, a kind of God’s-eye view, he reflects on his ability to perceive and to know the whole. He addresses his own consciousness, an offshoot of that power which, miraculously, has escaped naming. He finds himself momentarily lifted out of time, without an immediate past or future. He wonders how, without memory or desire, he can still be overtaken by “blame and merit,” by the responsibilities of life and knowledge, even when he is attuned ecstatically to the ethereal and the ideal.


(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Miosz himself translated this poem from Polish into English, capturing much of the original’s imagistic density. “With Trumpets and Zithers” takes the form of a mosaic. A mosaic consists of particular objects or fragments of a given color or texture which, when fastened together, yield a larger pattern which no one object could supplant but to which each contributes meaning. Most of the poem’s lines are closed, end-stopped grammatical units, and a given line describes a discrete image, thought or action. The connections between successive lines and among those images, thoughts, and actions are difficult to establish. Even within the scope of a single line, Miosz may introduce several units of meaning that are disjunctive or opposed. For the most part, each line is unique, and when the lines are combined in a series of ninety-five verses, an extremely complex, interlaced web develops. Formally, in Miosz’s poem, one can sense the tension between the particular and the abstract, between the discrete line or image and the variegated whole.

The leaps undertaken from line to line and from image to image give the poem a wild, ecstatic energy. The poet’s mind seems to be moving at an incredible rate, his imagination and memory fired either by visionary insight or by the sexual, sensual impulses that he describes throughout the text. “With Trumpets and Zithers” is a dithyramb, a form of poetry which dates to the ancient Greeks, whom he invokes in the first section of the poem. This form embraces extravagant cadences and images and was derived from religious chants or songs. Miosz’s unmetered, extended lines give the impression of a mind unfettered and wildly inspired by some otherworldly presence.

Yet, each line is carefully limited by syntax and ends with a definite period, which suggests that Miosz also recognizes the bounds of speech and human intellect. The poem has no argument, no readily discerned progression from section to section. He cannot expound with any logical clarity the inspired vision that seems to have overtaken him. Miosz can only go so far, he himself suggests; others may even come to write about this ecstasy in a better, more fulfilling fashion. Throughout the poem, Miosz formally counterbalances his divinely inspired frenzy with a recognition of his earthly limitations.