Something Bittersweet: “A Song on the End of the World”

UC Berkeley, Spring 2011

I choose to write about a poem today. This poem shaped a bit of who I am. Not in any transformative way, rather it was a touchstone of my life during a time where I desperately needed one. Today, it remains a touchstone, my go-to poem for moments when I need strength and, oddly, clarity.

Through this poem, I learned to speak Polish.

I stumbled through an endless sea of consonants as I tried to read it amongst an audience of Czesław Miłosz’s fans, family, and friends at his centennial celebration.

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Czesław Miłosz, the Nobel Laureate and author of this lovely poem, was born in Lithuania and then lived in Poland for much of his youth. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, he left Poland and made his home in the hills of Berkeley, CA. Tucked away in his home in the hills, he wrote a number of wonderful works, but he also taught at the Slavic Languages & Literature Department at UC Berkeley, the department that I got my Bachelors degree and a diploma that was, in essence, a labor of love.

Listening to my reading now as I watch the recording, I can’t help but cringe at my horrible accent and glaring insecurity upon the stage- but I am also slightly proud. Learning Polish is no small undertaking. It is not easy, it is not natural for a novice at slavic languages and it is very, very complicated. But I dove in, nose dived, straight into the abyss and fell in love with the language, the culture and the people of Poland. This labor of love was the most amazing and riveting adventure of my life. Loves have come and gone, but the language remains in my soul. It saved me…this poem saved me.

As my tongue contorted to the strange sounds, I learned many lessons. I learned the true meaning of determination, for one. I also learned that the best things never come easy. I learned that life doesn’t announce itself, it expects you to run and embrace it. I learned that each day is essentially the same as the next, unless you make it different.

I think that is what Czesław Miłosz was saying in this poem, though I could be dead wrong. The way I see it, each day, even the day the world ends, looks just like any other day. Everyone expects the world to end with a crash and a bang, but it won’t. It will simply come, like every other day. As such, each day has the potentiality to be your last, and you would never know it if you sit around waiting for a special announcement or a sign from God.

So if the day the world ends is a day like any other, wouldn’t you want to make today the best?

It’s simple. It’s sweet. It’s also sad, but you don’t know why. Just think on it…

The poem is transcribed first in Polish and then in English.

PIOSENKA O KOŃCU ŚWIATA

W dzień końca świata
Pszczoła krąży nad kwiatem nasturcji,
Rybak naprawia błyszczącą sieć.
Skaczą w morzu wesołe delfiny,
Młode wróble czepiają się rynny
I wąż ma złotą skórę, jak powinien mieć.

W dzień końca świata
Kobiety idą polem pod parasolkami,
Pijak zasypia na brzegu trawnika,
Nawołują na ulicy sprzedawcy warzywa
I łódka z żółtym żaglem do wyspy podpływa,
Dźwięk skrzypiec w powietrzu trwa
I noc gwiaździstą odmyka.

A którzy czekali błyskawic i gromów,
Są zawiedzeni.
A którzy czekali znaków i archanielskich trąb,
Nie wierzą, że staje się już.
Dopóki słońce i księżyc są w górze,
Dopóki trzmiel nawiedza różę,
Dopóki dzieci różowe się rodzą,
Nikt nie wierzy, że staje się już.

Tylko siwy staruszek, który byłby prorokiem,
Ale nie jest prorokiem, bo ma inne zajęcie,
Powiada przewiązując pomidory:
Innego końca świata nie będzie,
Innego końca świata nie będzie.

– Czesław Miłosz

A SONG ON THE END OF THE WORLD

A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

– Czesław Miłosz

One thought on “Something Bittersweet: “A Song on the End of the World”

  1. Pingback: Jezyk Wloski

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