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The End and the Beginning is a poem by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. It first appeared in her poetry collection going by the same name in 1993. Known by its Polish name Koniec i pocz?tek, the poem also appeared in Szymborska’s 2001 poetry collection Miracle Fair (2001) and was translated by Joanna Trzeciak in English. This poem vividly explores the aftermath of war and how it negatively impacts both human lives and physical spaces. The poem chiefly highlights the often-overlooked tasks and challenges faced by those tasked with rebuilding after the devastation of war.
About the Author
Maria Wislawa Anna Szymborska was born on 2nd July 1923 in Prowent, now Kórnik in west-central Poland. She is a renowned Polish poet, essayist and translator and her work insightfully grapples with the themes of human existence, morality and the mysteries of life. Szymborska’s early education was interrupted by World War II, and she began her literary journey in the 1940s. Her debut poetry collection, That’s What We Live For, was published in 1952, marking the beginning of her poetic exploration. One of her key achievements includes her being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. The Nobel Committee praised her for her “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Szymborska’s notable collections include Calling Out to Yeti (1957), Salt (1962), The People on the Bridge (1986), and View with a Grain of Sand (1995).
The poem comprises 47 short lines that are divided into ten stanzas of varying lengths. The poem is written from an omniscient point of view and can be categorised under the section of war poetry.
Lines 1- 8
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.
The poem begins with the speaker telling how after a destructive war, someone is given the responsibility to clean up the chaos. This is because things will not straighten themselves out or go back to order themselves. Someone has to push the rubble to the side of the road so that the wagons that carry the corpses of the dead soldiers and civilians can pass through the roads.
These lines provide us with a commentary on the aftermath of war and the immediate attempts at reconstruction that follow. The poem gives a very real picture of the rubble being pushed to the side of the roads and the corpse-filled wagons. These two images also show how war is destructive not only towards the physical space but also towards human lives. It is also important to note that the tone of the speaker is very matter-of-fact as if one is reading a newspaper report, which fits the context of the poem.
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.
The lines put the focus on the people who do the clean-up after the war. The speaker says how someone has to get dirty and covered in scum, and ashes, and clean up things such as sofa springs, splintered glass and bloody rags. The speaker goes on to focus on the act of reconstructing buildings and bridges and comments on how someone will have to push the girder and construct a wall. Someone will also have to glaze a shattered window and rehang a door.
These lines show how difficult and burdensome the job of rebuilding truly is. The act of restoring a war-ridden space into order is gruelling in nature. Other than this, the images of sofa springs, splintered glass, and bloody rags also show how war not only human lives but also domestic spaces that are bombed or left behind by their inhabitants. Also, the use of the word “someone” shows how people who are given the task of rebuilding are restoring a physical space are often not known by the general public and are not given the credit that they deserve.
Lines 18- 25
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.
The aftermath of war is not photogenic at all. The speaker also comments on how the cameras that were tasked to report on the war have left for another war. The speaker introduces the voice of the people “We” and says that they will require railway stations and new bridges since the older ones have been destroyed by war. And this job will be given to labourers whose sleeves will go ragged from rolling them up so much and working hard.
Here, the speaker provides a commentary on those whose job is to report on a war. The media reporters’ departure for another war suggests how they tend to focus on the “sensational” aspects of conflict and neglect the prolonged efforts of reconstruction. Here again, the poem focuses on those people who are tasked with constructing different buildings, bridges and railway stations.
Lines 26- 36
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.
The poem moves on to a cleaner, who has a broom in their hand and can still recall the traumatic events of the war. There is someone else who listens, possibly partaking in a political debate about the war and nods with an unsevered head. But there are already people who have started to find the events of the war “dull” and start to leave the discussions. The speaker then metaphorically depicts how people unearth “rusted out arguments” from out the bushes, or the past. But since people are tired of the debates surrounding the war, the arguments are discarded in the garbage pile.
The poem here shows personal opinions on war and how they are dealt with by different people. Most of the survivors still remember the trauma they underwent during the war, years after it happened. Some people still debate about the war but eventually seem to lose interest. Thus, we see how even several years after the war, the survivors still recall the destructive events even though they would like to forget all about it.
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.
The speaker goes on to comment how the people who experienced and witnessed the war will eventually be replaced by the newer generation who know little about the war. And this generation will eventually be succeeded by a newer generation who knows nothing about the war and lives in ignorance. The speaker lastly provides us with a romantic image- in the grass and land that has endured the impact of war, someone would be stretched out, a blade of grass in his mouth, and gazing at the clouds in peace.
These lines depict how the passage of time functions and makes people eventually forget about the war. Moreover, the generations that have not experienced the war will also not be as aware as the war survivors, and thus, will live in ignorance. The speaker shows how the future generation will live away from the harsh impacts of the war and will thus, have the peace that the war survivors did not have. The image at the end emphasises this point as the person lies in the grass and gazes up at the clouds in complete ignorance of the war and its effects.