Last week I posted my favorite poem, Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘Incantation,’ in honor of my friend Ben’s birthday. The poem has been a part of my life and thought for so long that it’s been a long time since I actually stopped and reflected on my reasons for loving it. So here’s a video of me reciting the poem, followed by my interpretation of it.
Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
As a writer and dissident who lived under both Nazi and Soviet regimes, Milosz was well acquainted with the suffering that totalitarianism can level against intellectuals and humanists. His eventual defection to the United States and his subsequent successful career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and university professor testify to his declaration that human reason can and will triumph over small-mindedness, censorship, and exile.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
The rhythm of this poem reminds me of “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The first line is like the clarion burst of the trumpets and French horns that opens Copland’s work. The second and third lines (as well as many subsequent lines), with their alternating plosives and sibilants, resemble the drum-rolls that punctuate the brass lines of the Fanfare. The sensibility this evokes is martial, resolute, the face of someone staring fearlessly down the barrel of a gun.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
Here the poet asserts that not only do “universal ideas” like truth (or Truth) exist, but that language gives the tools to name and claim them. This is an argument against the postmodernist conceit that everything – truth, falsehood, good, evil – is relative and a question of degree. The notion that we can bind these ideas with language and ascribe value to them is reminiscent of the shamanistic belief, one still expressed in cultures throughout the world, that naming a thing gives the namer power over it.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
Milosz, a “scientific, atheistic” person in his youth, returned to the Catholic faith of his upbringing as an adult. In this stanza he evokes Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In doing so, he conflates the power and dignity conferred by the use of human reason with the salvific grace of God. Thus reason is elevated above the mere mechanics of cognition and imbued with radical and transformative power.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
George Orwell, another fiercely anti-authoritarian thinker, wrote extensively about the ways that oppressive regimes use language to manipulate people. The history of Nazi, Communist, and other totalitarian propaganda is strewn not only with neologisms, ambiguities, inaccuracies, and hypocrisy, but with corpses and mangled lives. Even in less violent contexts, such as advertising copy and contemporary political rhetoric, we can see the negative consequences associated with “the filthy discord of tortured words.”
I am not sure how these lines read in the original Polish, but the English translation does justice to the overall sense of the poem. The words “austere” and “transparent” contain the both the sound and feeling of air, of clarity. That onomatopoeia contrasts starkly with the phrase “filthy discord of tortured words,” the very sound of which is cramped and dark.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
This statement is a refutation of Ecclesiastes 1:10, which states: “Nothing under the sun is new, neither is any man able to say: Behold this is new: for it hath already gone before in the ages that were before us.” As pointed out before, the poet identifies human reason with divine grace itself. The Gospels and the Epistles repeatedly assert that this grace has the power to make all things miraculously new.
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
I’ve talked before about one of my favorite films, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘The Lives of Others.’ In one of that movie’s most powerful scenes, a character reviews the dossier kept on him by the East German secret police. He is surrounded by dozens of other Germans doing the exact same thing. The scene is a quiet but moving example of how chronicling and preserving information – and, most important, making that information openly accessible – can not only conserve individual and collective history, but allow people to find some measures of meaning and healing from a troubled time.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
With these lines Milosz abruptly breaks from his prosaic, if eloquent, catalog of the virtues of human reason and turns to apotheosis. He posits that the essential manifestations of human reason are “Philo-Sophia,” (literally, “love of wisdom”) and poetry, which in themselves are divine and magical creatures. The imagery is reminiscent of Renaissance conceptions of Arcadia as a pastoral paradise.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.
The final couplet brings us back from the Elysian heights of unicorns and personified echoes to a more pragmatic style and sensibility. The rhythm is that of a cannon report. The language is that of prophecy: the notion that the triumph of reason, poetry, philosophy, and goodness itself is inevitable – that, in fact, it has already happened. And that, by aligning themselves in opposition to “the service of the good,” the forces of lies, oppression, confusion, and ignorance have sealed their doom.