“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.)