Tony Harrison is known for his moving and in-depth depictions of people at war, struggling through their everyday lives. In the case of ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo’ Harrison sought to reveal something of Sarajevan life in the midst of the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s.
This is achieved through a variety of images that allude to the major themes of the text, war, strife, suffering, and perseverance. They can be seen through the references to “snipers,” “shells,” “mortars,” and death. At the end of the poem, the mood lightens again somewhat, depicting a couple having coffee together “until the curfew”. There is hope, normalcy, and perhaps even love that’s able to penetrate through the tragedies of war.
Explore The Bright Lights of Sarajevo
The poem begins with the speaker addressing the hardships of life in Sarajevo. People have to wait in line for rations of gas and bread, never knowing if there will be enough. They take their belongings home, sometimes having to walk up eleven flights of stairs. Their lives are filled with struggle and uncertainty. They are at constant risk from falling bombs and sniper fire.
Despite these terrors, love blooms at night. When there are no lights in the city, Muslims, Serbians, and Croatians can walk among one another unbothered. There is no definition to their forms, and boys and girls can “collide” and come to know one another. The symbols of light and darkness alternate in ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo.’ Sometimes the light represents hope, such as when the boy lights a match. Other times it represents danger, as seen through the clear skies. Darkness works in the same way. They are able to hide within it, but it has also consumed their world.
The poem concludes with the speaker bolstering the overall mood of the text and alluding to simple, human happiness and companionship. The boy and the girl hold hands and enjoy one another’s company amongst symbols of war and struggle.
Read the full poem here.
‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo’ by Tony Harrison is a single stanza poem that contains forty-six lines. These lines follow a very simple rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD, and so on, changing end sounds as Harrison saw fit.
Harrison makes use of several other poetic techniques, these include anaphora, alliteration, enjambment and juxtaposition. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. In the first eleven lines, Harrison utilizes “of” at the beginning of four lines and “or” at the beginning of two.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “Serb shells” in line ten and “strollers stride” in line seventeen. Other examples include “clouds” and “cleared” in line thirty-six and “death-deep, death-dark” in line forty-two.
Enjambment and Juxtaposition
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. It can be seen in action throughout ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo’. One example is found in the transition between lines four and five where a reader has to jump to the next line in order to find out what “precious meagre grams” refers to. Another is seen between lines eight and nine in which Harrison speaks about the nights in Sarajevo and what one might assume they’re like.
Finally, juxtaposition is when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to emphasize a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. Most prominently, this technique is seen through the contrast between everyday activities such as getting coffee or walking down the street and the siege hours of fear and desperation. Juxtaposition is one of the most important techniques at work in this poem.
Analysis of The Bright Lights of Sarajevo
After the hours that Sarajevans pass
Queuing with empty canisters of gas
to get the refills they wheel home in prams,
of Sarajevo would be totally devoid
of people walking streets Serb shells destroyed,
but tonight in Sarajevo that’s just not the case–
In the first lines of ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo,’ the speaker begins by listing out the myriad of struggles the Sarajevan people endure on a day to day basis. The poet addresses the constant queuing, whether it is for “canisters of gas” or “meagre grams / of bread”. Everything must be allocated, one person at a time. Everyone has to wait to see what the ratio is going to be “each day” and if they’re going to get enough to eat.
If the desperate wait for supplies isn’t enough, the Sarajevan people have to endure “snipers on the way”. Their bullets rain down, forcing normal people on the street to “dodg[e]” them. The struggle continues into the next lines without end punctuation. By choosing to link all these lines together, without giving the reader a place to rest, Harrison piles up events, necessities, and desperations, one on top of another. A reader must contend with an onslaught of struggle and fear.
Juxtaposed with dodging the sniper’s bullets is the walk-up “eleven flights / of stairs with water”. This very simple, universal struggle is another feature of life the Sarajevan people have to deal with. Harrison edges towards the conclusion of this run-on sentence in the eighth line. He says that with all these terrors and hardships in mind, one might think the streets at night would be “totally devoid” but that’s “just not the case”. There is something different about “tonight”.
The young go walking at a strollers pace,
black shapes impossible to mark
except as one of the flirtatious ploys
when a girl’s dark shape is fancied by a boy’s.
In the next set of lines, the speaker describes what one might see if they were to examine the streets at this time of night. There are the “young…walking at a strollers pace”. Using a metaphor, he describes the young as moving slowly, un-rushed. At night, there are no lights to tell an onlooker whether the people in the street are “Muslim,” Serbian, or Croatian. “You,” the speaker adds, “can’t distinguish” one person from another. He uses bread, and the variety of words for it (“hjleb,” “hleb,” or “kruh”), to draw an insignificant difference between the walking “black shapes”.
There is peaceful simplicity to the walk at night. No one worries about who they’re passing and any of the normal divisions that are considered during the day. The only time anyone “collide[s]” is when “a girl’s dark shape is fancied by a boy’s”. Just as the Sarajevans are forced to contend with the physical struggles of human life, under the cover of darkness they enjoy human pleasures as well.
Then the tender radar of the tone of voice
shows by its signals she approves his choice.
and he’s about, I think, to take her hand
and lead her away from where they stand
Harrison goes on, describing in more detail what life is like at night in Sarajevo. The word “radar” is used in the twenty-first line in order to depict the “tone of voice” that comes out of the dark. When boy and girl “collide” she shows through “its signal she approves of his choice”.
There is a process to these relationships that the speaker has tapped into and depicts for the reader. The two come together and using a “match or lighter to a cigarette” the boy looks into the girl’s eyes. This speaks to an immediate intimacy that’s necessary in wartime, as well as to the overall darkness of the scene. There are no lights for the two to see by, but it is worth using a match to “check in her eyes if he’s made progress yet”.
This phrase is an interesting one. It’s concerned with her impression of the young man she’s encountered. He’s trying to judge whether or not he’s charmed her sufficiently in order to move to the next steps. As if observing the street at the very moment the poem was written, the speaker says that he can “see” who has “progressed”. Some have moved beyond the “tone of voice and match-lit flare test”. The rhythm of this phrase helps to drive home the importance of the encounter. In this phrase, Harrison also makes use of consonance or the use and reuse of constant sounds. In this case, the “t” sound.
He continues to analyze the scene in line twenty-seven. The speaker thinks the young man might be “about…to take her hand” and lead her somewhere else. He “thinks” this is the case. He’s studied the young people of Sarajevo enough to where he believes he can read them.
on two shells scars, where, in 1992
Serb mortars massacred the breadshop queue
from the rain that’s poured down half the day,
though now even the smallest clouds have cleared away,
The twenty-eighth line is powerfully enjambed, forcing a reader back into the reality of the situation. The two were “stand[ing]” not on a simple street corner in any normal city, but “on two shell scars”. It was there, “in 1992 / Serb mortars massacred the breadshop queue”. These lines are a brutal reminder of the world the young people are living in.
Without a doubt, Harrison chose words like “blood-dunked,” “broken,” and “massacred” in order to create a striking contrast, or juxtaposition, between the simple nighttime pursuits of the young and the war around them. At one time, the street the two are now standing on was full of “broken dead”. Now, they can still look down and see the holes leftover from the falling mortar shells. They are full of water, despite the fact that the rain is long gone. The holes are a powerful reminder of the past, and a jolting return to the present.
leaving the Sarajevo star-filled evening sky
ideally bright and clear for the bombers eye,
sprinkled on those death-deep, death-dark wells
splashed on the pavement by Serb mortar shells.
Harrison switches over again in the next lines of ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo’ and addresses the lovely “star-filled evening sky”. The young couple could only see it because the clouds cleared away. But, beauty is not without fear or death in this world. The clear sky may seem like a positive change but in reality, it will allow the bombers an unobscured line of sight down to the ground.
In another beautiful and powerful image, the boy looks down and can see “Pleiades” in the water’s reflection. This is a reference to a star cluster in the constellation of Taurus. It is one of the closest to earth, and therefore one of the brightest. In order to maintain the dreary, gloomy, and foreboding mood that consumes most of ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo” Harrison uses words like “fragments” and “splintered” to describe the sight of the constellation. Just as the ground is physically splintered and their world is metaphorically fragmented, so are the stars.
Utilizing alliteration in the forty-first line, Harrison describes the “wells,” or holes in the ground, as “death-deep, death-dark”. There is no getting around what they represent. The darkness of the moment is increased when the speaker says they were very simply “splashed on the pavement by Serb mortar shells”.
The dark boy-shape leads dark-girl shape away
to share one coffee in a candlelit café
until the curfew, and he holds her hand
behind AID flour-sacks refilled with sand.
In the last four lines, juxtaposed with the previous dark and depressing imagery and the mood those images created, the entire atmosphere of the text lightens. Harrison returns the reader to the story of the “boy-shape” and “dark-girl” as they move away to “share one coffee in a candlelit café.” Here now are other lights to contrast with those reflected in the water, and to strengthen that of the match or lighter. These lights represent hope, a possible future peace, and human relationships.
Their burgeoning relationship grows in the midst of death, darkness, and an uncertain tomorrow. They hold hands “behind AID flour-sacks” that have been refilled with sand. They once contained humanitarian aid, in the form of flour but now they work as barricades to strengthen buildings should more bombs fall.