We are all products of our environment and Nobel laureates are no different. Wislawa Szymborska grew up in Krakow, Poland during World War II and the effect of being a Polish child during the height of German power has had a profound effect on the poetry she writes. (Nobel) However, instead of writing with the kind of maudlin regret that many who lived through the holocaust tend to, Szymborska’s ironic wit delivers an interpretation of the tragedies she may have experienced as a child in a way that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. The Nobel Foundation awarded her their highest achievement in literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality” (Nobel), and I think that this statement summarizes perfectly her ability to take the very worst that humanity has to offer and relate it in a way that doesn’t take away from its seriousness while still making light of it. One of her collections of poetry responsible for earning her this distinguished award, View with a Grain of Sand, was originally published in 1995 and contains two poems which greatly demonstrate her control of irony as well as her grasp of the depth of the ideas she’s writing about. “Hitler’s First Photograph” takes the reader to a time when the world’s most infamous dictator was still in diapers and discusses one of the most powerful men in all of history in terms that a nanny might use to discuss a newborn child. “Children of Our Age”, another poem in the collection, reinforces the idea that no matter who we are or where we come from, there are political ramifications in everything we do. This poem also gives politics a seemingly ethereal quality, stating that all things have political effects, and that politics as an entity is both inescapable and omnipresent. While it isn’t odd that these notions would come from someone who had to educate themselves underground while their country was under Nazi occupation, the way that she delivers her sentiments is something truly unique and remarkable.
“Hitler’s First Photograph” uses diminutive and patronizing words to describe one of the most powerful and infamously pitiless men in history to an ironic effect. The robe baby Hitler is wrapped in is described as “itty-bitty” while his hands are “teensy”. By using these adorable, almost onomatopoeic adjectives, Szymborska is using information that her readers already have and giving them a description that is quite the opposite. When people think of Hitler, they do not think of the child he once was, or the nicknames his mother or nurses may have had for him. “Honey bun” and “mommy’s sunshine” are terms about as frequently used to describe Hitler as “gentle” or “clandestine” are used to describe a tyrannosaurus rex. Further irony comes when the speaker of the poem discusses the potential occupations of baby Hitler in the future. The first listed, “printer”, conjures images of an adult Hitler ordering all books that didn’t fit into his history of Germany to be burned. These are hardly the actions of someone with a fondness for the printed word. The next occupation is “doctor”, a word whose connotations usually involve life-saving, which when used to describe a man who is a part of history because of his predisposition for burning human beings alive has the effect of making the reader imbibe the lines of the poem while their mind is working in darker avenues. What we are given is a depiction of a cute and innocent baby who is being doted on by those around him, while our mind is conjuring images of the Third Reich and concentration camps. In addition to her constant ironic tone, Szymborska also uses more conventional techniques to compose her poem. Metonymy is used in lines where Hitler is depicted merely by his “tummy full of milk” or his “teensy hand”. Having these parts of a baby’s body represent Hitler gives the reader an nonthreatening image of a person who most see as an abomination of humanity. Hyperbole is rampant throughout this poem, as every single line seems to pile on the praise and admiration that the adults around baby Hitler have for him. This could possibly just be the praise all parents heap on their children, but lines such as “Precious little angel, mommy’s sunshine, honey bun” really lay the cute nicknames on thick, and it leaves the reader with a bitter taste in their mouth. The line “A dove seen in a dream means joyful news” shows Szymborska’s control over assonance, making her vowels sound pleasing when read aloud while still retaining their ironic undertone. The idea that this is one of the most joyous days of Hitler’s mother’s life is overshadowed by what her son will become. Even when Szymborska isn’t directly describing Hitler his influence is apparent, as in the line “Spring sun, geraniums in windows” which evokes images of krystallnacht. Krystallnacht, or “night of broken glass” was an event that took place 1938 when Germans protesting the assassination of a German official by a Polish Jew murdered 91 Jews and arrested around 25,000. (Britannica) It earned this name because of the number of windows that were broken in homes and businesses owned by Jewish people. Because Hitler’s presence in the poem is hard to forget and his future actions are impossible to ignore, the mere mention of windows evokes this image. Throughout the entirety of this poem the reader is made uncomfortable because they are being detailed a baby, which people immediately associate with innocence, meanwhile they can’t help but think of the violence this baby will become capable of. As a result, this poem isn’t so much about the child or the environment, but about what human beings can grow to accomplish. The final stanza is particularly dark, as it uses the images of “yeast dough” and “grey soap”. These are two seemingly innocent objects, but they make the reader think of ovens and showers. The reader’s mind is then drawn back to the holocaust and the ovens and gas-showers used during that time. The final two lines “A history teacher loosens his collar and yawns over homework” serves to foreshadow the events that will transpire as the baby grows up, as history will not be something to merely yawn over once Hitler has reached adulthood.
Another of Szymborska’s poems, “Children of Our Age” shares many of the same themes as “Hitler’s First Photograph” but also describes the very nature of politics as something all-encompassing and universal. In the third stanza, the first two lines read “Whether you like it or not, your genes have a political past” and suggest that we have no control over what we will be associated with when we are born. Much like when Hitler is born in “Hitler’s First Photograph”, but is not immediately identified as having a political future by the adults around him, yet the reader is aware of the political effects this baby will one day have. This continues in the lines “Your skin a political cast, your eyes a political slant” which probably refer to the Aryan race, or to the races that Hitler singled out for no other reason than their differences to the average German at the time. In those same lines, Szymborska also makes excellent use of internal rhyme which gives the words a pleasant flow while referencing prejudice and racism. Szymborska’s ability to write a line that rolls off the tongue becomes clear throughout this poem, as in the line “Whatever you say reverberates”. The accents would fall on the “ever” “say” “reverb” and “ates” causing the line to rhyme with itself and also follow the kind of pattern that is pleasing to the ear. Lines like “Whatever you don’t say speaks for itself, so either way its politics” could be referring to the silent consent of the holocaust by many people in Europe at the time, but could also be associated with baby Hitler in the previous poem as he never actually says anything, while the political nature of who he is remains evident throughout. There is an allusion to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare in the line “To be or not to be, that is the question” which reminds the reader of the political nature of that play and also serves as another example of politics penetrating the lives of people and causing change. (Greenblatt 153) Just as Hamlet’s uncle was politically motivated to kill Hamlet’s father, Hamlet is politically motivated to reveal this atrocity. By describing politics in terms of one of the world’s greatest tragic plays while referencing one of the greatest tragedies of human history with the Holocaust, Szymborska is associating politics with suffering while maintaining her consistent ironic tone. The line which states that “to acquire a political meaning, you don’t even have to be human” serves to reiterate the poem’s theme that politics are everywhere and everything, but could also be interpreted as a double entendre for Hitler who many saw as inhuman. As Szymborska grew up during the Second World War in Poland, this is a likely conclusion to draw. The final stanza, “Meanwhile people perished, animals died, houses burned, and the fields ran wild just as in times immemorial and less political” leaves the reader questioning the importance of politics in the modern world. The poem itself states that politics are everywhere and in everything, but are also the cause of much of the suffering in the world. This relates to the reader Szymborska’s view that the political arena facilitates the kind of suffering she herself had to endure during World War II.
A simile from “Hitler’s First Photograph” describes the baby Hitler as being “like the tots in every other family album” and in the context of “Children of Our Age”, that is true. Hitler was born with political attributes associated with him because of his race, gender, social class and even his eye color. However, “Hitler’s First Photograph” is about the potential for even the most innocent of babies to turn into adults who are capable of great evil. “Children of Our Age” depicts the nature of politics as something that surrounds and penetrates us all, as well as being the cause of much of the suffering we experience. In these two poems, Szymborska seems to suggest that a world without political aspiration would be more peaceful, while reminding us that even the most monstrous men in history were once just infants. While dealing with these heavy concepts, Szymborska never loses the ironic tone that makes these poems enjoyable. When reading them, you can almost hear the sarcastic tone of someone who was speaking them aloud and this allows the reader to associate themselves more closely with what the writer is trying to convey. These poems are as insightful as they are entertaining, and it is no mystery why they would earn Wislawa Szymborska a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Greenblatt, Stephen et all. The Norton Shakespeare Volume 2: Later Plays. New York:
W.W. Norton and Company. 2008. p. 153-154
“Krystallnacht.” Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
2002. Encyclopedia Britannica. 5 April 2009.
“Nobel Prize in Literature 1996.” The Official Website of the Nobel Foundation.
1996. Nobel Web AP. 5 April 2009.
*Note: both poems are from
Szymborska, Wislawa. View With a Grain of Sand. New York: Harcourt Brace and
Company. 1995. p. 145-150.
Translated into English by: Wolanie Do Yeti, Sto Pociech, Wszelky Wypadek, Wielkas Liczba, Ludzie Na Moscie and Koniec Poczatek.