Czeslaw Milosz’s “Meaning” is a moving paean of optimism in the face of a world fraught with uncertain troubles; a spiritual ballast of faithfulness, rebuffing the common cynicism of many who disdain the possibility of a greater reality than this world.
Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish Catholic who joined the Resistance against the Nazi Occupation, originally wrote this poem in his native language. Originally titled with the French word “Sens” (which means “meaning,” but also “direction,” and “sense”), Milosz later translated his work into English.
The poet expresses a boundless hope, one that exposes the ultimate duplicity of a passing world—one in which those who live on “this side” must confront.
“The lining of the world” emphasizes a higher order of life has persists in the face of the mundane. “Lining” speaks, perhaps, of an unseen yet grand texture, a beautiful embroidery waiting to be discovered, or a structure beneath that supports everything, yet remains unnoticed.
“The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.”
Bird, representing biological life, times, and seasons that move about the earth; cycles of nature which capture a calm beauty, no matter how patterned.
Mountain represents the deliberate elements of our world, not just natural phenomena, but also the institutions, like Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given to the Jews, or the Catholic Church, which claims the Apostle Peter (or “stone”) as its founder.
When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add Up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.
- And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?
- Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.
By listing “sunset” in the final of three terms, the poet indicates the twilight of established orders, the end of reigns and dynasties, the fading of hopes and dreams, and the sad certainty that all beautiful things, even as they manifest a greater glory in their diminution, must ultimately disappear and give way to blackness and night.
“The true meaning” is a loaded phrase, including the word “true,”which elicits respect and derision. For the poet, the “true meaning,” the end of the story, the resolution and explanation of all things, will be revealed.
The missing pieces of one’s broken life will come together and “add Up.” The capitalization of this little preposition, positioned at the very end, suggests that the open security of whatever questions have puzzled mankind will have found their peaceful termination.
The poet rebuffs repudiation with hopeful faith. “If there is no lining,” if there is no hidden beauty not yet revealed, then the “thrush on a branch” still represents a part of a greater whole. The two basic elements of “thrush” and “branch,” and perhaps by extension, the basic processes of life, death, and existence as a whole are still part of a larger creation.
Just like the thrushes and branches of isolated simplicity, night and day reveal the staggering systems of life beyond the comprehension of one man. Almost chiding the inclination that “on this earth” there is nothing “except this earth,” Milosz expresses his faithful certitude of a world “beyond” this world.
“There will remain,” continues the poet, “a word wakened by lips that perish.” “Remain,” what stays over, what lasts, what endures in spite of times and seasons, reigns and deaths, there remains a word. The poet’s words remain, certainly. “Perish” implies complete disappearance, sometimes through privation or violence, without a trace. The lips that speak the word will go away, not one trace of them remaining, but the wakened word will continue, an ever-present sign of the lips that are no more.
“A word” is described as a “tireless” messenger—one that does not just bear a message, but represents the one who sent it. “Tireless” indicates that this word is unstoppable, unceasing, interminable.
Stressing the simplicity of this indefatigable word, the poet repeats “runs and runs.” Relentless in its energy, inexhaustible in its mission to be, this word travels beyond worlds; “Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies”—beyond the thrushes, the branches, the senseless night and day.
This word “calls out,” emerging from a language to contact someone. Its purpose? It “protests,” it refuses to die, it refuses to be reduced to nothing. It “screams,” demanding to be heard.
Milosz’s “Meaning” contends that life is not a barren exercise or a joke. This one word, or Word, lives and breathes in every one who believes.