Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Holy Wednesday Poems: Account and In Black Despair and A Task

Here are three poems by Czeslaw Milosz. They are all about original sin, one way or another.


The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle's flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own—but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it's late. And the truth is laborious.

In Black Despair

In grayish doubt and black despair,
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air,
pretending to joy, although I lacked it.
The age had made lament redundant.

So here's the question -- who can answer it --
Was he a brave man or a hypocrite?

A Task

In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.


  1. This is a great series. Thanks.

  2. "In grayish doubt and black despair,
    I drafted hymns to the earth and the air,"

    Drafting hymns to earth and air is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the age. For not only does our age reject sadness but so also only accepts praise, in the way of all the ancient pagans, for nature.

    But what if he had drafted hymns to God? What if he had not pretended joy but confessed against himself, against his despair? Indeed, such persons fear they are hypocrites, who say they love their wives when they do not feel it, or who come to the Holy Communion when they are filled with doubts. But they are not. They are rather brave men for they subdue the flesh. They confess. They insist on speaking what they know is true (God is good, I love my wife, etc) even when they do not feel it.

    But if the joy expressed is only to earth and air, I do not know. For it is hard to consider confession, when the poet himself admits it is pretend. And while there is joy in nature, in earth and air, is it not shallow and fleeting when we are facing death? And is it then really joy? And if it is done simply to fit in with our ages refusal to acknowledge sadness, then indeed it is a kind of cowardly conformity. Thus I say, though I do not want to: hypocrite.

  3. You're such a Christian, Petersen. That poem is in the same brave tradition of the high pagans. It's the same pathos as reading the Iliad. All is black despair - or grayish doubt. Nothing lies beyond but Hades' shadow halls - or, moving north, Ragnaroek and a complete end.

    But sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles in the meantime! The Wolf's eyes are on all the hall, but drink up, Wodin, while your one eye sees the green vales of Midgaard!

    He's as good as a pagan can be: he is brave in the face of what all men know, "Vanity, vanity all is vanity!"

    Too bad Zwingli was wrong - it would be nice to hoist the cup with Priam's son and sing the sad song of the inevitable fall of Troy.


  4. Yeah - he said that Socrates, Hector, etc. would make it. Here's a quote:


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