Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “The End and the Beginning” originally referred to as “Koniec i początek,” was first published in the year 1993. Through this poem, Szymborska paints a grim and dreary picture of everyday life in a post-war world. In her unusually ordinary words, she introduces the idea of how at the end of one war, there begins another equally grave but a rather silent, unaccounted war for those who are left behind. This harsh and jarring reality of the new mundane systematically unfolds in this poem. Time and time again, the poet addresses the traumatic and devastating impacts that any war has on people’s lives. She elaborates on how these consequences are long-lasting and affect the quality of life for generations to come. There is a whiff of chaos, unrest, turmoil, and agitation that firmly hangs on to every word uttered by her.
- Read the full text of “The End and the Beginning” below:
The End and the Beginning by Wislawa Szymborska After every war someone has to clean up. Things won’t straighten themselves up, after all. Someone has to push the rubble to the side of the road, so the corpse-filled wagons can pass. Someone has to get mired in scum and ashes, sofa springs, splintered glass, and bloody rags. Someone has to drag in a girder to prop up a wall. Someone has to glaze a window, rehang a door. Photogenic it’s not, and takes years. All the cameras have left for another war. We’ll need the bridges back, and new railway stations. Sleeves will go ragged from rolling them up. Someone, broom in hand, still recalls the way it was. Someone else listens and nods with unsevered head. But already there are those nearby starting to mill about who will find it dull. From out of the bushes sometimes someone still unearths rusted-out arguments and carries them to the garbage pile. Those who knew what was going on here must make way for those who know little. And less than little. And finally as little as nothing. In the grass that has overgrown causes and effects, someone must be stretched out blade of grass in his mouth gazing at the clouds. - from Miracle Fair (2001)
Szymborska’s “The End and the Beginning” in its essence is about the irreversible damage and destruction caused by war. Everyone is well aware of the gruesome acts of violence and cruelty that the advent of war unquestionably brings with itself. In her writings, Szymborska makes it a point to bring to light the gore and shattering images of everything that is uprooted as a result of the combat. She talks about how there is a sense of incongruence that war brings along. The poem presents to the forefront even the most trivial facts and horrifying details of what is left behind. The speaker talks about how easily the affected areas, i.e., the villages, towns, and even entire cities are forgotten once the war comes to an end.
In the first stanza itself, the speaker addresses the fact that there is always “someone” who has to do the cleaning after the physical act of war is over. This call is not for a certain “someone” but for anyone and everyone repeated throughout the poem. Although the speaker describes the grave subject of mass destruction, her voice is determined, sharp, and ready to take action. She goes on to construct an image of the world where the daily life of citizens is filled with both emotionally and physically taxing tasks. These include the hefty task of cleaning up the roads, pushing the rubble, cremating the dead, and so on.
The poem, therefore, reflects upon the concrete and everyday events rather than creating distant notions. This expression of the ordinary in a familiar language is one of the most remarkable aspects of Szymborska’s poetry. As the poem progresses, the reader is exposed to a wide range of subjects. There is, obviously, the seriousness of war juxtaposed with the grainy mundane. This contrast is most visible in the mention of simple objects like sofa springs, doors, and windows.
The speaker’s shifting tone also adds to this glaring difference. Her voice is both gentle, full of concern, and simultaneously ironic. Finally, there is a portrayal of the cyclic nature of life and death, i.e., the ultimate “end” and the “beginning” piled up on one another. The speaker, especially, emphasizes the idea that after a troubling “end,” the transition to a new “beginning” is mostly uneven and not effortlessly easy. That is, the rummages and ruins of the past carried on to the future to some extent.
Structure & Form
“The End and the Beginning” is essentially a war poem. A slightly different war poem that is dedicated to the ordinary people instead of the soldiers or army involved in the physical combat. It consists of a total of 47 lines, which are divided into ten short stanzas of varying lengths. The poem is written in free verse. A free verse poem is one, where the poet expresses compelling feelings and thoughts without resorting to any concrete form, meter, or even rhyme pattern. Szymborska makes use of this form to get her message across to readers. Instead of using a specific form, she allows the poem to organize itself through the interaction of words, rhythm, and stylistic techniques.
The employment of simple language and regular speech provides a personal touch and uniqueness to the poem. Although this adds familiarity, a hint of the ordinary, and naturalness, it does nothing to make this piece soothing or reassuring. Another interesting aspect of this poem is the poet’s ability to detach herself from the text as an individual. She uses the third-person point of view to narrate the events. This gives her the liberty to distance herself emotionally from the subject. It is only her voice—an indisputable one—that conveys how personal and closely linked the subject of war is to her. This adds greatly to the compactness and simplicity of the poem.
Literary Devices & Figurative Language
On a closer inspection of Szymborska’s “The End and the Beginning,” readers come across the use of the following literary devices and poetic techniques that are essential to the overall meaning.
Imagery refers to the employment of descriptive language that appeals to readers’ senses to conjure up a mental picture or notion. In her poem, Szymborska employs imagery as a medium to truly introduce readers to the horrors of war. She explores human depth through her reflective writing skill. She, very strategically, makes use of both: the harsh and cruel imagery of destruction juxtaposed with the soothing and carefree imagery of ignorance.
In the beginning, readers walk into a world that has been reduced to nothingness. The imagery involved here is that of hardship and despair. As the poem develops, Szymborska makes sure that readers also experience what liberation from such a traumatic event feels like. She concludes the poem on a romantic note—with the mention of the sky and nature:
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.
Kinesthetic, derived from the word “kinetic,” indicates motion or movement. This type of imagery represents an object’s or character’s gestures and sometimes actions. Szymborska’s poetry is known to be the poetry of motion. The description and movement involved in at least the first three stanzas of the poem immensely help readers to visualize what destruction to life and living in a post-war setting looks like:
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.
This description of physical labor gives the poem an overall sense of rawness. It makes the struggle more believable. Especially, with the ease of understanding, it captures readers’ attention right where it is necessary. The detailed organic imagery also helps the poet evoke a sense of heartfelt sympathy and compassion for those who sacrificed their lives and are trying to get things together.
The word “someone” appears several times throughout the poem. This emphasizes that one has to clean things up, push the rubble, and get mired. It means someone has to come forward and hold the helm. They have to address the loss of both human and physical capital. Szymborska mentions how it is time for someone to come and get their hands and feet dirty.
The word “someone” is also used to remember the number of human capital that has been lost as a result of war. Some items need to be restored and mended. It also emphasizes that although the work is not pretty or enticing, someone will still have to come ahead and pick up the broom. She does not say who this “someone” is to highlight that this role can be filled by anyone and everyone. This indicates how the task of bringing life back on track is on everyone’s shoulders. No one person is responsible for the entire fencing of the chaos created by war.
Other than just stressing the need to move toward progress, repetition also brings a certain structure to this free-verse poem. It provides a lyrical quality and rhythmic flow to each stanza. This makes this piece more intriguing.
Symbolism is the use of varied symbols or objects that help the author present a range of ideas and interpretations. These symbols are carefully picked to fit the context and incorporate subtle yet nuanced images into the text. In “The End and the Beginning,” Szymborska uses some ordinary but extremely creative symbols to put her point across.
“Sofa springs,” “splintered glass,” and “bloody rags”
One of the most important symbols that comes up in the first few stanzas is the mention of furniture. The speaker, in the third stanza, zooms out from the outside world and focuses on what lies inside. The “sofa springs” and “bloody rags” are a representation of how the disastrous war affected the mundane and peaceful life of ordinary citizens. The sofas that were once lived on, the furniture that saw a family grow old and has a great many sweet and savory memories attached to it, now stand isolated, in a state of utter chaos, like the outside world. The “sofa springs” falling out of it act as a parallel to the miserable lives of that and many more such families.
Therefore, these minute details of life that shed light on the happier times are now reduced to blood stains and broken objects. This symbol is introduced to bring a familial touch to the poem. It makes the reader more empathetic to the sufferings of the people.
The second symbol that Szymborska brings along captures in itself one of the major themes of the poem, hardship. Line 24, “Sleeves will go ragged,” encompasses all the hours that people will have to put in to rebuild society from the rubbles. The poet uses the term “ragged sleeves” to denote that war brings with it the unending task of repairing everything that is broken. It not only means the monuments, bridges, or roads, but it also indicates the lives that have been affected. Therefore, sleeves will go ragged from rolling up and tending to the needs of everybody, and still, it will not be enough. The recovery on such a huge scale is going to cost the blood and sweat of the innocent just as much as the war did.
In the concluding stanza, Szymborska brings in a much-required ray of hope. The sky and other elements of nature, like grass, act as an instrument of looking beyond the loss and suffering. The image of grass depicts the promise of a new beginning, optimism, and regeneration. It stands against the ideas argued earlier.
This symbol also speaks of the hope and joy that comes when peace triumphs over the carnage, cruelty, and catastrophe caused by war. All the negative impacts are eventually buried and forgotten. The carefree and untroubled voice of the poet reflects upon the fact that despite every terrible thing of the past, there is still hope for betterment in the future.
The message that the speaker conveys here, through the symbol of overgrown “grass,” is that there is always a silver lining. With the dead buried below the grass, the speaker advises the coming generations to look up, on the other side—toward growth.
Unlike any other form of repetition, anaphora refers to the words or clauses that find mentioned over and over again at the beginning of successive sentences. The phrase “Someone has to” is constantly repeated throughout the poem. This makes up for a perfect example of anaphora. The phrase is a call that the speaker makes time and time again to stress how necessary cooperation is in a post-war world. In this poem, anaphora provides the same purpose as repetition. It makes what the speaker desires to be heard a little louder. Besides, this creates a sense of urgency in readers’ minds and ultimately leaves a lasting impact.
Enjambment is a poetic device that is used to continue a statement or phrase from one verse line onto the next. It comes from the French “enjamber,” which means “to stride over.” Written strategically, “The End and the Beginning” is filled with such run-on lines. This literary device is used at the very onset:
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
The thought that started in the first line is only completed in the second line. Similarly, the following lines are enjambed. This device breaks lines at irregular intervals giving the poem a free-flowing effect. The colloquial diction blended with lines having a few words gives the poem an edge. It keeps the readers engaged in this wordy maze with the meter and form always shifting.
Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
The first stanza of Szymborska’s “The End and the Beginning” presents the history of any and every war from a different perspective. In the ruinous post-war world, where everything has been reduced to ashes, the speaker begins to confront the gravity of her surroundings. She declares that there is a need to repair the damages and set things right, effective immediately. Her use of the word “every” in the first line also indicates that the nature of war has remained the same throughout history. Therefore, its consequences, the deterioration is also an unavoidable constant.
In a meticulously structured and precise way, Szymborska mentions that “someone” has to take charge of the situation. One must come forward and take the necessary measure. Here, the use of the word “someone” works as an address to each and every citizen. The speaker declares that everyone has to come together and clean up the wreckage caused by the war.
Her tone is unpretentious, sturdy, and approachable. She says that it is essential that people unite and work together for their betterment, as the state of their living is not going to improve on its own. The fact that the poet encapsulates the entire subject of her poem in these first two brief lines points toward a sense of urgency. Apart from this, the further addition of “after all” at the end of line four gives an overall ironic ring to her statement.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
In this stanza, the speaker continues to elaborate on the grim portrayal of war. She cautiously informs readers of the magnitude of loss and suffering that the people living through wars experience. She also employs some of the most appalling images and clever language to illustrate the on-ground realities during such times of hardship. Szymborska’s approach to highlighting all menial jobs that must be accomplished one after another, after the repeated usage of “someone,” underlines the immensity of the consequences of war. One such dreadful task is having people “push the rubble” aside so that the vehicles carrying the dead can pass without any difficulty.
Therefore, it can be witnessed that the obscenity and seriousness of the struggles are in no manner minimized or fabricated in this poem. Instead, it seems that the poet aims to plague the poem with an overwhelming sense of transience, a growing consciousness of death, and human frailty. Her reflection on death and the unpleasant conditions of the survivors are the two important takeaways from this stanza.
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
and bloody rags.
This stanza picks up once again enumerating that to see signs of any real progress “someone” must get up and take responsibility. Someone will have to trudge through sludge and ashes and continue clearing the fields for cultivation. In doing so, the speaker paints a distressing image of what the end of war looks like. This introduces readers to the harsh and hollow truths of war. The words “scum” and “ashes” are used to add a layer of bleakness to this all-consuming poem.
Going further, Szymborska abruptly unpacks a bunch of household objects, like “sofa springs,” “splintered glass”, and “bloody rags” throwing light on how the mundane objects appear in the post-war setting. These trivial details like the mention of sofa springs and rags cleverly add another perspective to the poem. These objects bring old memories, a sense of the good, old times, and comfort.
Therefore, this stanza of “The End and the Beginning” acts as a bridge—connecting the previously separated outdoors and the indoors. Readers can clearly witness a merger between chaos and calm; the tumult of war and the silence of the household. There is nothing more striking than the images of mass destruction on the outside placed right next to the banalities of the inside. Although, in doing so, Szymborska does not forget to mention the disarray and disruption of war. She takes note of the fact that the nature of war is such that it does not discriminate. The dreariness, discomfort, and uncertainty war causes reflect on both grounds equally.
Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Sticking to the lyrical development, the speaker once again mentions that “someone” must do the hefty job of propping up the wall, glazing a window, and readjusting a door in its original frame. This description sheds light on how expansive the restoration process is. Along with the physical dismantling of infrastructure, war is capable of destroying the liveliness and sense of security that people attach to their homes. In the aftermath of war, houses are reduced to fragile walls, shattered windows, and crooked doors.
In this regard, these lines capture the little details that must be taken care of once the war has ended. The speaker makes a determined effort to give her readers the truest and most wonderful articulation of what the restructuring of society looks like. The speaker conveys how nothing is exciting or appealing about rebuilding an entire nation right from the scratch.
Moreover, this task comes with a reminder of all the sufferings and sorrows of wartime. It is time-consuming, difficult, and psychologically daunting. Metaphorically, the poet also highlights the hardships of everyday life after the war, which usually take nothing less than a lifetime to heal.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
Now, the speaker moves over to that aspect of war where the citizens, irrespective of their nation’s victory or defeat, are left to struggle through their losses. The speaker mentions that these details of utter loss and disorder are neither “photogenic” nor attention-worthy for the onlookers. The recovery takes years and even then, there are slight hints, remains, and terror of war looming over the survivors that can never be wiped clean. Her remarks embrace the internal conflict and emptiness that grips the scene. It continues even after the guns have been set down. There is nothing pretty about the renovation process other than the sheer courage and perseverance the survivors show every day.
Szymborska wants to bring home the idea that these stations of war stand in isolation—uncared for—once the actual fight comes to an end. The repercussions of a battle are more often than not observed in solitude. The mass media that so enthusiastically aired the events of war suddenly disappears leaving the common man to fend for themselves. The “cameras” move ahead surrendering one battleground to broadcast the activities of a new war. This shows how the notion of burning up entire cities and the sacrifices made by innocent lives has been normalized. There is a sense of irony that takes over the concerned voice of the poet toward the end.
We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Once the heroic and frantic rush of war leaves there are bigger issues to be dealt with. Szymborska in these lines of “The End and the Beginning” enlists the places of economic significance that a nation requires to reconstruct once the adrenaline of war is drawn out. Szymborska, having lived through the World Wars, asserts that in order to resort to normal life some external signs of progress are necessary. Therefore, the bridges, railway stations, and other monuments of importance will have to be brought back to life. Someone will have to spend an endless amount of time repairing the damages caused in a split second by the weapons of mass destruction.
The speaker realizes the depth of her statement and immediately adds that in doing so the sleeves of the workers, the common people, will go “ragged.” The pressure of fixing their surroundings, when there is hardly any ray of hope, inspiration, or support makes the process seem extremely difficult. On top of that, there is the burden of the death of friends and relatives on their weary shoulders.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with an unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.
The seventh stanza presents a turning point in the poem “The End and the Beginning.” In the opening lines, the speaker talks about the laborious activities and hardships that war carries with itself. Here, the narrative shifts to a more profound and delicate understanding of life after the war. The focus is on social rehabilitation and cultural redevelopment. Years after the war has ended, there has to be someone remembering and telling stories about the war. Someone somewhere is going to recall the past and the way it has affected the future of their nation.
The speaker describes how the next generation listens to these distant tales regarding the glory and futility of war. Eventually, with every generation, the impact of the stories is going to lessen. At some point, the younger generation will get tired and ignorant of these reparative details of the past. They will become increasingly detached until it is, at last, forgotten.
From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
and carries them to the garbage pile.
The speaker informs readers that years after the war when its remains have been unearthed, there is still a distant mumble about it. The memory of the battle lives on in the hearts of the survivors. Out of the “bushes,” a metaphorical reference to the past, war finds its way into conversations. Even though the pavements have been rebuilt and the monuments have been repaired, there is an overwhelming need to conserve the history of the survivors and the traumas they underwent.
However, some people are not comfortable discussing and reliving the horrifying details of history. That is why the poet makes use of the phrase “rusted-out arguments.” Some people, especially the present generation, find the subject of war disinteresting and dull. Hence, the imagery of the “garbage pile” accurately fits the narrative.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
What Szymborska essentially tries to convey in these lines is that war is a thing of the past. Though the war is an integral part of those who experienced it in any form, it is not important today. In the present times, there is, indeed, an acknowledgment of the struggle and harsh realities of the older generation, but there is also a wider scope for growth and development. So, when the speaker mentions that those who experienced the war “must make way” she means that they should make a way for more constructive ideas. They should make space for the new generation, full of life, hope, and rigor, to make things better.
The motive here is not to entirely seclude the history of war. To say that would be a gross overstatement. To move forward does not necessarily mean giving up one’s past and forgetting the traumatic event. The poet only proposes a balance between the past and present.
The modern-day lifestyle is rapidly transforming and those who still live with the horrors of their unimaginably troubling past should give the process of restructuring a chance. Szymborska’s stance is not due to a lack of moral resolve, it is rather a display of willingness to accept new ideas. It is a forward-looking mindset. She acknowledges that the future looks bright and is full of possibilities. Therefore, the old must make way for the new, not troubled by the gory details.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.
The concluding stanza of “The End and the Beginning” conjures up an image of someone sleeping in the grass, looking at the clouds. It is the perfect picture of moving forward and beyond. This relaxed posture and calming illustration of just lying in the fields is a different theme that Szymborska brings to the table. She mentions the “overgrown causes and effect” in an orderly fashion, which encourages readers to look beyond the purview of war.
The speaker explains how, with due time, someone can outgrow the difficulties of the past, so much so, that they are allowing themselves to comfortably lie on the ground under which the dead lies silently. Here, facing the sky is like facing the side of growth and rejuvenation. Advancement, therefore, is symbolized in these lines by the picture of the clouds. The sky is a symbol of peace and clear-mindedness.
Finally, Szymborska, by the magic of her words, is able to deduce deeper, more ethical, socially responsible, and philosophical truths about life. These generalizations and observations transcend the aesthetics of speech and language. In this concluding stanza, she exploits the most commonplace depiction of human existence to present the themes of ignorance, memory, and hope.
The operating language or word choice of a piece of poetry is called poetic diction. It refers to the language, which is used in a way that distinguishes poetry from other forms of speech or writing. It includes the lexicon, intonation, syntax, and grammar that is deemed proper while writing poetry. The poet’s tone, language, and manner of conveying their thoughts bring out a serious message in the text.
Unlike Szymborska’s other poems, “The End and the Beginning” does not blend humor or comedy. Instead, the poem relies on a strict format by drawing a balance between the high seriousness of war and the gentleness of nature. Right from the beginning, the reader is drawn into the serious subject of the poem. Since there is no scope or space for humor and break in such times of discomfort. This technique is employed by the author in order to center the reader’s attention on the major issue being discussed, namely, war.
The 2001 translation of the poem by Joanna Trzeciak is rather rough. The use of scratchy language gives the impression that, just like the matter of war, the poem too, is quite intense. The sentences in each stanza either halt abruptly or run on to the next line without any punctuations, making readers apprehensive. This uncertainty is what keeps the poem moving. It makes sure that the audience is alert and on their feet throughout—as if drawing a parallel to the people in a post-war world—scared and unsure of what lies ahead.
The pace of the poem is also controlled, slow, and sporadic. This depicts how the healing process is also not linear or uniform. In addition, the use of syntax in this translation creates an uneasy feeling again, representing the post-war atmosphere.
Szymborska’s poem “The End and the Beginning” is not for the faint of heart. War, torment, mortality, human experiences, and time are recurring themes in her work. Along with these, there are also themes of courage, perseverance, and recuperation that are widely discussed in this poem.
War is one of the most obvious and prominent themes in this piece. The subject of war is essentially what makes her otherwise simple and straightforward verse a grim reality. With the help of vivid imagery, Szymborska exemplifies the steps that need to be taken in a post-war setting. With every line, the speaker digs a little deeper into the theme, questioning the very purpose of such mass destruction.
Revisiting metaphors, she analyzes the consequences from the perspective of the commoners. Then the damaging effects are put on a display for readers to experience every minute detail of the war for themselves. The squander and ill effects remain unfabricated. Through this intense depiction of loss, suffering, and anguish, the speaker wants to point out the ludicrousness of war. She is of the opinion that, once initiated, there is no end to the suffering. It stays in the history and culture of a nation for future generations to evaluate its causes and effects.
In this poem, Szymborska employs the theme of time to adequately portray a state of anxiety that is usual in such circumstances. Time, memory, and the remembrance of inequitable damage form the main idea of the poem. Szymborska rightfully addresses that the healing from such a traumatic event might take a long time. What gives the poem its tremendous appeal is the way she connects the memories of the past and the present with what is to come.
Apart from the tragic events of the past, there is also constant anticipation about the future. In the last few stanzas of the poem, the speaker takes charge of this sense of time. Although the war seems timeless, she states how the future holds hope for productivity. Someone somewhere still remembers the past, but the passage of time heals whatever is left of the after-effects until “finally as little as nothing” is left.
Rebuilding society, as well as the individual, is another important theme that is prevalent in the poem. As the poem is set in the ruins of war, rebuilding and makeover are things that stand closest to the subject. The very first line, “After every war/ someone has to clean up,” indicates this idea. Therefore, it is evident that this piece commences with the conclusion to the physical act of war. It then, successively, slides into the slow and laborious process of post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction. The speaker beautifully reflects on the process of building back from scratch. She also mentions the courage and bravery of the survivors who, despite such a grave and emotionally troubling past, take hold of their future.
Wislawa Szymborska penned “Koniec i początek” or “The End and the Beginning,” a 47-line, free verse poem, after the fall of communism in Poland in 1989. The translation of this Polish poem by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh first appeared in The New Republic on January 18, 1993. The original poem in Polish was published in the 1993 collection of poetry by the same title. The present translation is taken from Szymborska’s 2001 collection, Miracle Fair translated by Joanna Trzeciak.
Szymborska witnessed the Second World War (1939-45) and this poem presents an account of the cultural memory of those countless days. The subject matter of this poem is situated in the post-war era. Hence, the poet’s understanding and experience of living through a war play an important role in creating a dreadful image of what post-war time actually looks like.
This poem, therefore, becomes an outlet for the author to fully process and reevaluate her emotions. It gives her the space to understand the sense of agony and distress that she has against the war that she not only experienced but also survived.
Questions and Answers
One of the greatest poems of Wislawa Szymborska, “The End and the Beginning,” is about a world that is absorbed in the grief and sufferings of the survivors of war. A war where the consequences are not only financial or political but also social and humanitarian. The speaker of this poem highlights the fact that a war is not only limited to a fight between nations, but it is the sum of the burdens and difficulties that the common people suffer every day, even after the actual war ends. From the pain of being displaced from one’s own home to the agony of losing a close family member, everything finds shelter under this umbrella term “war.” These things form an integral part of the poem.
“The End and the Beginning” by Wislawa Szymborska is essentially a philosophical reflection on life in a post-war setting. The poem revolves around the “end” of brutalities and the “beginning” of a hopeful future. Through this piece, Szymborska poses questions as she mediates between the designated ends and beginnings in such a puzzling and complex time. She explores the depth of emotions and devises that the end of war does not necessarily mean the end of suffering. The poem, at another glance, can also be interpreted as revolving around the cyclic nature of life and death, i.e., the biblical end and beginning.
The poem “The End and the Beginning” was originally written after the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 as “Koniec i początek.” The translated version of the poem by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh first appeared in the January 18, 1993 issue of The New Republic. It was also included in one of the best-known Szymborska collections, Miracle Fair (2001).
Wislawa Szymborska lived through the Second World War. Being a survivor, she wanted to express the ruinous and fatal consequences of war. The main aim of writing a war poem is to outline the extent to which hatred and revenge can go. “The End and the Beginning” by Szymborska, in a sense, is a warning against war. It not only acts as a document highlighting the dangers of war, but it also gives a sense of hope to people around the globe who have been through such events.
Szymborska wrote the poem intending to provide a path and guide her readers as well as the survivors. She urges the survivors to fight against the hardships and rise again as more powerful and vigorous beings. The poet’s motive, therefore, is to connect to her readers and spread the message of compassion, unity, and hope. In doing so, her poem encourages the audience to be more sympathetic.
“The End and the Beginning” is a free-verse poem coming specifically in the genre of war poetry. With regards to its subject matter, this piece can also be regarded as a specimen of post-war poetry. There is no set rhyme scheme or meter and the poem consists of ten short stanzas with a total of 47 lines. What is most interesting about this poem is its simple structure, clever and precise diction, and vivid imagery.
Szymborska’s poem “The End and the Beginning” incorporates the themes of the aftermath of war, post-war rebuilding, ignorance, history, time, and optimism. The central theme of this piece revolves around the post-war rebuilding process, termed a “new beginning” after a calamitous “end.”
Szymborska uses a unique tone to reach the hearts of readers. Though her poetic persona appears to be a little detached from the subject and more factual, her views, on the other hand, are insightful, and perhaps even more striking than one might expect. Initially, the speaker describes the decay that the war brought on the people and the property. The poet sets a depressing and gloomy atmosphere where there is no trace of recovery.
However, after the fifth stanza, the poem outlines the course of a new “beginning” and draws the path toward a better future. The second half concentrates on the sense of hope and circumvents through the process of recovery and development. Even though the poem begins on a pessimistic note, eventually it paves the way for a ray of light that waits for the war survivors at the end of the dark tunnel.
The poem communicates the message that no war has a winner, it only has survivors who are left to fend for themselves. They are abandoned to live the rest of their lives with a sense of fear and anxiety. Szymborska is able to connect to this theme so closely because of her own firsthand experience in such circumstances. Even though she considers that war is catastrophic, she believes that recovery is still possible. This is the main idea the poem uncovers for readers. The poem ends with a sense of hope and growth for a ravaged country, showing the path to getting things together in the aftermath of war.
The visual image of “corpse-filled wagons” hint at the extent of human loss that can be witnessed in the aftermath of war. Besides, the bodies are treated as mere waste that has to be picked up and buried in order to make way for the future generation.
The image of “sofa springs” in line 11 represents the impact that war has on the lives of ordinary lives. The mention of such an everyday object as a “sofa” introduces readers to the astonishing and disturbing details of the interiors. It brings forward the havoc such large-scale wars cause in the lives of innocent families and children. The sofa that once embraced life is reduced to just another image of collapse. Now, it just reeks of discomfort and loss.
The image of a carefree person forgetful about their horrific past gives readers a hint about the post-war sentiment of the new generation. They are not troubled by the horrors of war. Instead, they can lie in a carefree manner and engage in daydreaming.
In the concluding stanza of the poem, the “grass” symbolizes naivety, hope, and a new beginning. This grass stands for the present generation who has overgrown bitter “causes” and their shattering “effects.”
Similar War Poems
- “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou — In this piece, Angelou talks about her faith in humanity and her hope for a better world.
- “They are hostile nations” by Margaret Atwood — In this poem, Atwood depicts the suffering of people worldwide during the Cold War.
- “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” by Dylan Thomas — This piece is written in reaction to the death of a child in the Second World War.
- “Dreamers” by Siegfried Sassoon — This poem sheds light on the themes of the horrors of trenches and the disillusionment of soldiers.
- Check Out Poems New and Collected by Wislawa Szymborska — This definitive, complete collection of Szymborska’s poetry is expertly translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.
- Check Out How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Writers by Wislawa Szymborska — This witty how-to guide includes the pieces of advice for budding writers Szymborska wrote for Literary Life, the well-known Polish journal.
- The Poem Aloud — Listen to this spoken word performance of Szymborska’s poem by Diana Morley.
- Celebrating Wislawa Szymborska — Listen to Szymborska’s poems read by American poet Charles Simic, her translator Clare Cavanagh, and other prominent Polish poets.
- The Poet and the World — Read the incredible Nobel speech by Szymborska delivered on December 7, 1996.
- Biography of Wislawa Szymborska — Learn some interesting facts about the poet’s life.
- Life & Poetry of Wislawa Szymborska — Explore more about the poet’s life and her works.