Czeslaw Milosz – “Incantation”
Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
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.
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.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
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.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.
translated by Robert Pinsky
Other than the fact that this is translated, you might notice that this poem has a distinctly un-American sound. In fact, I would say Milosz’s poems have characteristics atypical of much mainstream modern poetry. Yet, he has somehow gain widespread acceptance within the academic poetry community.
My best guess in explaining this, and my own love of his work, is there is something very forthright and arresting about his tone. It’s as if he’s a close acquaintance in the room with you, saying, “Look, this is how it is; listen up.” He deals much in abstractions and didactics, which otherwise are no-no’s in the “objective,” detail-obsessed world of writing today. Yet, he remains evocative of ideas and emotions, without sounding sentimental or preachy.
I already believe him by the end of the first line, and any objections I might raise about the goodness of humanity – what of all the cruelty that history and the daily news reveals of us? – is swiftly answered. Because of reason, we strive against lies and oppression, despite the fact that we lie and oppress. He even goes so far as to deny the truth of a cliche about originality (rooted in the Bible – interesting, since Milosz was Christian; perhaps he was an artist first).
He never wavers. In fact, his claims become more grand. Poetry and philosophy (in an odd twist, he re-makes philosophy into “Philo” and “Sophia,” emphasizing the meanings behind the coupling – “love” and “wisdom” – also perhaps references to Philo, a Jewish mystic, and Sophia, the Gnostic deity who represents wisdom) serve goodness, their power so nubile that we are to believe their birth was celebrated yesterday. At this point, I begin to see a note of hyperbole slip in. And when he says their births are heralded to the mountain by a unicorn and an echo, I think of the tale of Jesus’ birth. Could he be saying that angels, like the one who told of Jesus’ birth, are as fantastical as unicorns, their trumpet cries like refracted versions of reality like echoes?
Yet, he is not trying to water-down his ideas; he is putting them in the frame of biblical profundity, while keeping them free of necessary religious association. His line about reason not knowing Jew nor Greek, slave nor master, sounds very New Testament-ish; yet reason is downplayed by the NT, as the “cross to the world is foolishness.” While Milosz was a Christian, his seems a very modern Christianity. He writes with hope and optimism about humanity, even though he saw the horrors of totalitarian regimes; he lived near Warsaw under Nazi occupation, and was a recipient of the “Righteous among the Nations” award for helping Jews escape the Holocaust.
I will freely admit that I do not actually accept the hopefulness about humanity that is presented in this poem. However, I do feel that this poem perhaps lessens my cynicism and misanthropic tendencies. And, finally, as an artistic conceit, I feel it is effective, as effective as despair or pessimism might be in other works of literature. Somehow, all the images and claims made earlier lead me to nod my head when I read the poem close with, “Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.”