‘The End and the Beginning’ by Wislawa Szymborska reflects on the aftermath of war, exploring themes of destruction, resilience, and the cyclical nature of history. The poet vividly portrays the challenges of post-war reconstruction, the burden of responsibility, and the fading of collective memory over time.
Through powerful imagery and contemplative language, the poem delves into the human spirit’s endurance amidst chaos and the need for introspection to find meaning in the cycle of destruction and renewal. It offers a poignant reflection on the complexities of war and the enduring essence of humanity.
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Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘The End and the Beginning’ reflects on the aftermath of war and the necessary tasks to rebuild.
After every conflict, someone must clean up the debris and clear the roads for the wagons carrying the dead. Amidst the scum and ashes, someone has to deal with shattered glass and blood-soaked rags. Another person must bring a girder to support a damaged wall and fix windows and doors.
The process is not photogenic; it takes years, and by the time the war ends, the media has already moved on to cover another conflict. Nevertheless, bridges and railway stations need restoration, and sleeves will wear out from rolling them up to work.
A person with a broom in hand still remembers how things were, and someone listens attentively. However, new people are coming, finding the recovery process mundane. Occasionally, old arguments resurface but are eventually discarded.
Those who understand the history here must make way for those who know very little or nothing about it. In the overgrown grass, someone might lie down, contemplating life while gazing at the clouds, symbolizing the passage of time and the cyclic nature of human conflicts.
Structure and Form
The poem ‘The End and the Beginning’ by Wislawa Szymborska follows a free-verse form, evident through its ten stanzas with irregular numbers of lines per stanza and the absence of a notable rhyming scheme. This structure allows the poet to explore the theme without the constraints of traditional poetic patterns, providing a more fluid and natural expression.
The lack of a fixed rhyme scheme enables Szymborska to focus on conveying the aftermath of war and the process of rebuilding with a sense of rawness and authenticity. The absence of predetermined rhymes enhances the poem’s emotional impact, as it reflects the chaotic and unpredictable nature of war’s aftermath.
By employing irregular numbers of lines in each stanza, the poet creates a sense of visual and rhythmic variety, mirroring the disorderly and complex realities of post-war reconstruction. This structure also enables Szymborska to emphasize certain points or ideas, utilizing line breaks strategically to accentuate the poem’s meaning.
The free-verse form empowers the poet to experiment with line lengths and breaks, fostering a conversational and accessible tone. This informal approach makes the poem more relatable to readers, drawing them into the contemplation of war’s consequences and the necessity of rebuilding.
The lack of strict poetic rules allows Szymborska to embrace a more natural and organic flow of thought as she explores the long-term effects of conflict and the resilient human spirit required to restore society. The absence of a predetermined structure grants the poet freedom to capture the complexities of the aftermath and the various emotions that arise during reconstruction.
‘The End and the Beginning’ takes the form of free verse, utilizing irregular stanzas and lacking a notable rhyming scheme. This structure enhances the poem’s authenticity, emotional impact, and accessibility, enabling Wislawa Szymborska to artfully explore the profound themes of war’s aftermath and the indomitable spirit of humanity.
In ‘The End and the Beginning,’ Wislawa Szymborska addresses several poignant themes through her powerful verses. One of the central themes is the destructive nature of war and its aftermath. The poem opens with the line, “After every war, someone has to clean up,” emphasizing the devastating consequences that follow armed conflicts. The imagery of “rubble,” “scum and ashes,” and “bloody rags” further depicts the chaos and destruction left in the war’s wake.
Another theme explored is the resilience of humanity and the necessity of rebuilding. The poet illustrates the arduous process of reconstruction through lines like “Someone has to drag in a girder to prop up a wall” and “Someone has to glaze a window, rehang a door.” These actions symbolize the collective effort required to rebuild society and restore a sense of normalcy.
Szymborska also touches upon the fleeting nature of media attention and its impact on post-war recovery. In the lines, “Photogenic it’s not and takes years. All the cameras have left for another war,” she critiques how the media often moves on to new stories, leaving behind the struggles of rebuilding communities, which can extend for years after the war ends.
The theme of generational change and the passing of knowledge is another aspect present in the poem. The poet writes, “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.” This line portrays the fading memory of the horrors of war as new generations with limited understanding take over.
Finally, the poem explores the cyclical nature of conflict and history. The image of “someone, broom in hand, still recalls the way it was,” juxtaposed with “those nearby starting to mill about who will find it dull” illustrates the repetition of history and the possibility of forgetting the lessons learned from past wars.
‘The End and the Beginning’ by Wislawa Szymborska addresses themes of war’s destructive aftermath, the resilience of humanity, the fleeting nature of media attention, generational change, and the cyclical nature of history. Through vivid imagery and thought-provoking lines, the poet presents a profound reflection on the complexities of post-war reconstruction and the enduring spirit of humanity.
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
In ‘The End and the Beginning,’ Wislawa Szymborska employs various poetic techniques and figurative language to convey her message effectively. One notable technique is imagery, which vividly portrays the aftermath of war. Lines like “push the rubble to the side of the road” and “mired in scum and ashes, sofa springs, splintered glass, and bloody rags” create powerful mental pictures of destruction and chaos.
The poet also uses repetition as a poetic device to emphasize the continuous cycle of war and rebuilding. The phrase “someone has to” is repeated throughout the poem, emphasizing the responsibilities that follow every conflict and the unending nature of this process.
Enjambment is another technique utilized, carrying meaning from one line to the next, creating a flowing narrative. For example, “Someone has to drag in a girder / to prop up a wall” connects the act of dragging a girder to its purpose of supporting a damaged wall.
Szymborska incorporates metaphors to enhance the poem’s impact. When she describes the rebuilding process as “dragging in a girder” or “glazing a window,” these actions symbolize the effort and care needed to mend a shattered society.
The poet also employs personification, attributing human characteristics to non-living things. The phrase “Things won’t straighten themselves up, after all,” personifies “things,” reinforcing the idea that reconstruction requires human intervention.
The use of contrast is evident in the lines, “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.” This contrast between knowledge and ignorance highlights the passing of wisdom and the potential for history to repeat itself.
Wislawa Szymborska effectively conveys her message in ‘The End and the Beginning’ through various poetic techniques and figurative language. The powerful imagery, repetition, enjambment, metaphors, personification, and contrast all contribute to the poem’s depth and emotional impact, providing a poignant reflection on the consequences of war and the resilience required for rebuilding.
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
In the first stanza of ‘The End and the Beginning’ by Wislawa Szymborska, the poet delivers a profound message about the aftermath of war and the responsibility that follows. The simplicity of the opening lines belies the weight of its meaning, setting the tone for the rest of the poem.
The first line, “After every war,” immediately establishes the recurring nature of conflicts throughout history. By using the word “every,” Szymborska emphasizes that war is an unending cycle, with each one leaving behind destruction and chaos.
The second line, “someone has to clean up,” introduces the theme of accountability and the human response to the aftermath of war. It highlights that despite the devastation caused, the responsibility for rebuilding falls on the shoulders of individuals. The use of the word “someone” personalizes the act of cleanup, suggesting that it requires a collective effort from the survivors.
The third line, “Things won’t,” employs personification, attributing agency to inanimate objects. By stating that “Things won’t straighten themselves up,” the poet underscores the passive nature of the aftermath. There is an implication that the consequences of war do not naturally resolve; action is necessary for healing and reconstruction.
The final line, “straighten themselves up, after all,” adds a touch of resignation and acceptance. It emphasizes that expecting the damage caused by war to simply resolve on its own is unrealistic. The phrase “after all” suggests a recognition of the inevitability of human involvement in the aftermath.
In this stanza, Wislawa Szymborska lays the groundwork for the central theme of the poem: the responsibility and resilience required to rebuild after war. Through simple yet evocative language, the poet reminds readers that the consequences of war do not vanish with the cessation of hostilities. Rather, they demand the active participation of individuals to clean up and reconstruct. The stanza serves as a poignant reflection on the cyclical nature of war and the indomitable spirit of humanity in the face of destruction.
Someone has to push the rubble
In the second stanza, the poet delves deeper into the harrowing aftermath of war, depicting the grim realities that necessitate action and cooperation. The stanza conveys a message about the immediate challenges that arise in the wake of destruction and the urgent need for practical solutions.
The first line, “Someone has to push the rubble,” emphasizes the active role that individuals must take on to begin the process of recovery. The use of the word “push” conveys the physical effort and determination required to clear the debris left behind by the war.
The second line, “to the side of the road,” indicates the strategic placement of the rubble. Here, the poet presents the idea of organizing the chaos finding a temporary solution to allow for the passage of life and progress. This line also symbolizes the need to create a safe pathway amidst the devastation.
The third line, “so the corpse-filled wagons can pass,” introduces a haunting image of the aftermath of war. It highlights the urgency of the situation, as the wagons carry the dead, and emphasizes the somber reality that demands immediate attention.
In this stanza, Szymborska conveys the theme of collective responsibility and the crucial role that individuals play in coping with the aftermath of war. The use of the word “someone” again reinforces the idea that the burden of rebuilding falls on all survivors, requiring their active participation and cooperation.
The stanza also speaks to the necessity of pragmatic action in times of crisis. “Pushing the rubble to the side of the road” signifies the need to address the immediate consequences of war, even in the face of overwhelming destruction.
Someone has to get mired
and bloody rags.
In the third stanza, the poet continues to explore the grim and demanding aftermath of war, shedding light on the hardships that individuals must endure in the process of reconstruction. This stanza conveys a message about the sacrifices and challenges faced by those tasked with the daunting responsibility of cleaning up and rebuilding after conflict.
The first line, “Someone has to get mired,” conveys a sense of entanglement and difficulty that arises during the cleanup process. The word “mired” suggests being stuck or trapped, evoking a vivid image of someone grappling with the physical and emotional toll of dealing with the aftermath of war.
The subsequent lines, “in scum and ashes, / sofa springs, / splintered glass, / and bloody rags,” present a powerful series of images that represent the distressing and hazardous aspects of the post-war cleanup. The accumulation of debris, scum, and ashes mirrors the emotional weight of the aftermath. The mention of “sofa springs, splintered glass, and bloody rags” underscores the domestic and personal toll of war, reminding readers of the human lives shattered in the process.
Through this stanza, Szymborska conveys the theme of sacrifice and the burdens shouldered by those on the frontlines of reconstruction. The use of the word “someone” again emphasizes the collective responsibility that falls upon individuals to engage in the laborious and often dangerous task of cleaning up and rebuilding.
The imagery in this stanza serves to evoke empathy from the reader, allowing them to envision the challenging and gritty work involved in post-war recovery. It portrays the reality that those who undertake this duty must wade through the physical and emotional wreckage left by war.
Someone has to drag in a girder
rehang a door.
In the fourth stanza, Wislawa Szymborska delves further into the themes of responsibility and reconstruction after the war. This stanza conveys a message about the practical actions required to rebuild and restore a sense of normalcy in the aftermath of devastation.
The stanza begins with the line, “Someone has to drag in a girder,” which highlights the physical labor involved in reconstruction. The use of the word “drag” suggests the weight and effort required to bring stability back to a shattered environment. The girder, a large and essential structural element, symbolizes the fundamental work needed to support and fortify the damaged world.
The following line, “to prop up a wall,” emphasizes the necessity of providing support and stability to the structures that have been ravaged by war. This line extends beyond the literal sense and can be interpreted as the need to support the foundations of society that have been shaken by the trauma of conflict.
The next two lines, “Someone has to glaze a window, / rehang a door,” delve into the process of repairing the smaller, more delicate aspects of the environment. Glazing a window and rehanging a door are tasks that require precision and attention to detail, reflecting the care and effort required to rebuild society from its smallest components.
Through this stanza, Szymborska emphasizes the theme of resilience and the active role that individuals must play in rebuilding after war. The repetition of “Someone has to” reinforces the idea of collective responsibility, signifying that no single person can accomplish the task alone; it requires the efforts of many.
The poet’s choice to focus on specific tasks, such as dragging in a girder, propping up a wall, glazing a window, and rehanging a door, provides a tangible and practical perspective on the reconstruction process. It humanizes the efforts of those involved, making the poem more relatable to readers as they can envision the physical labor and attention to detail required in rebuilding their world.
Photogenic it’s not,
for another war.
In the fifth stanza, the poet delves into the stark reality of post-war reconstruction, presenting a message about the lack of glamor and media attention in the arduous process of rebuilding.
The stanza begins with the line, “Photogenic it’s not,” which immediately sets a tone of sobriety. The use of the word “photogenic” suggests that the process of reconstruction lacks the visual appeal and glamour that often captures media attention. Szymborska highlights the stark contrast between the sensationalism of war coverage and the more mundane and protracted efforts of rebuilding.
The next line, “and takes years,” emphasizes the prolonged nature of the reconstruction process. Unlike the instantaneous and dramatic events of the war, rebuilding is a slow and painstaking journey, requiring time, effort, and patience.
The subsequent line, “All the cameras have left,” symbolizes the fleeting attention of the media. Once the war has ended, news outlets move on to cover new conflicts, leaving behind the challenges of reconstruction. This line underscores the poem’s theme of resilience and the need for perseverance even when the world’s attention has shifted elsewhere.
The final line, “for another war,” adds a poignant touch of resignation and hopelessness. It implies that the cycle of war and destruction is unending, perpetuating the need for reconstruction after each conflict. Despite the efforts of those involved, the poem suggests that there will always be another war demanding attention and resources.
Through this stanza, Szymborska conveys a powerful message about the less glamorous side of war’s aftermath. It serves as a critique of the media’s focus on sensationalism, as well as a reminder of the long-term commitment required for rebuilding shattered societies.
The poet’s use of concise and straightforward language in this stanza enhances the impact of the message. The stark contrast between the attention-grabbing nature of war and the overlooked efforts of reconstruction effectively emphasizes the resilience and determination needed to rebuild amidst the fading media spotlight.
Overall, the fifth stanza of “The End and the Beginning” conveys a poignant message about the challenges and realities of post-war reconstruction. It serves as a reflection on the transitory nature of media attention and the enduring commitment required to rebuild communities devastated by conflict. The stanza’s brevity and clarity contribute to the poem’s overall depth, offering a thought-provoking exploration of the complexities of war and its aftermath.
We’ll need the bridges back,
from rolling them up.
In the sixth stanza, the poet delves into the practical aspects of post-war reconstruction, presenting a message about the necessity of rebuilding infrastructure and the dedication required for this daunting task.
The stanza opens with the lines, “We’ll need the bridges back, / and new railway stations.” Here, Szymborska emphasizes the significance of restoring crucial infrastructure that has been damaged or destroyed during the war. The use of the word “need” underscores the urgency of these rebuilding efforts, as bridges and railway stations are vital for transportation and communication in society.
The following line, “Sleeves will go ragged,” employs personification, attributing human qualities to sleeves. This vivid image suggests that the process of rebuilding will be labor-intensive and physically demanding. It also symbolizes the sacrifice and dedication required from those engaged in the reconstruction efforts.
The last line, “from rolling them up,” further emphasizes the laborious nature of the task. Rolling up one’s sleeves is a metaphor for getting to work and putting in the necessary effort. This line reinforces the idea that reconstruction demands active participation and hands-on work from individuals.
Through this stanza, Szymborska conveys a message about the resilience and determination of humanity in rebuilding after the war. The focus on bridges and railway stations signifies the importance of restoring vital infrastructure to facilitate societal recovery and progress.
The poet’s use of personification in the line “Sleeves will go ragged” humanizes the labor involved, making the physical toll of the rebuilding process tangible and relatable to the reader.
The concise and straightforward language in this stanza contributes to the poem’s impact, conveying the urgency and practicality of reconstruction efforts. The juxtaposition of the need for infrastructure and the worn-out sleeves highlights the determination and dedication required to restore society to its pre-war state.
Overall, the sixth stanza of “The End and the Beginning” conveys a powerful message about the essential role of infrastructure in post-war recovery and the unyielding spirit of humanity in the face of destruction. It serves as a reflection on the tangible efforts needed to rebuild a society torn apart by conflict, resonating with readers through its vivid imagery and relatable themes of resilience and renewal.
Someone, broom in hand,
who will find it dull.
In the seventh stanza, the poet explores the theme of memory and how different individuals react to the process of reconstruction and remembrance after the war. This stanza conveys a message about the complexities of collective memory and the evolving perspectives on the past.
The first two lines, “Someone, broom in hand, / still recalls the way it was,” depict an individual actively engaged in the cleanup and rebuilding process, yet their thoughts are drawn back to the pre-war period. The broom symbolizes the practical efforts of reconstruction, while the act of recalling “the way it was” signifies the human tendency to reflect on a past that has been shattered by conflict.
The following lines, “Someone else listens / and nods with unsevered head,” present another person who listens to the memories being recounted. The phrase “nods with unsevered head” suggests understanding and empathy. It implies that this individual acknowledges the significance of the memories shared while still connected to their own experiences before the war.
The subsequent lines, “But already there are those nearby / starting to mill about / who will find it dull,” introduce a contrasting perspective. The use of the word “dull” indicates a lack of interest or understanding in the past being recalled. This group represents a generation further removed from the events of the war, and their disinterest in the past highlights the gradual fading of collective memory.
Through this stanza, Szymborska conveys a message about the passage of time and the changing attitudes toward the past. The first two lines illustrate the importance of personal memories and the role they play in shaping individual perspectives. The following lines depict the continuity of memory through the act of listening and empathizing with others’ recollections.
The poet’s use of the word “unsevered” in the line “nods with unsevered head” emphasizes the continuity of memory and how the past remains connected to the present.
The inclusion of those “who will find it dull” signifies the inevitable shift in collective memory as time progresses. It suggests that, over generations, the immediacy and emotional connection to the past may diminish, leading to a potential disconnection from the events of war.
From out of the bushes
and carries them to the garbage pile.
In the eighth stanza of ‘The End and the Beginning’ by Wislawa Szymborska, the poet delves into the theme of historical memory and the process of discarding outdated ideologies and arguments. This stanza conveys a message about the persistence of old conflicts and the need to move forward by letting go of obsolete ideas.
The opening line, “From out of the bushes,” creates a vivid image of forgotten and concealed places. It suggests that certain arguments and ideologies are hidden in the recesses of history, waiting to be rediscovered.
The subsequent lines, “sometimes someone still unearths / rusted-out arguments,” depict an individual stumbling upon old, corroded disagreements and beliefs. The phrase “rusted-out arguments” suggests that these ideas have lost their relevance and vitality over time.
The last line, “and carries them to the garbage pile,” serves as a metaphorical action of discarding these obsolete arguments. It implies that they are no longer useful or valid and should be cast aside, much like throwing away garbage.
Through this stanza, Szymborska conveys a message about the importance of letting go of outdated beliefs and ideologies. The act of unearthing and discarding “rusted-out arguments” symbolizes the need to shed the burden of past conflicts and embrace progress and renewal.
The poet’s choice of language, such as “rusted-out” and “garbage pile,” evokes images of decay and obsolescence. These words emphasize the irrelevance and deterioration of the arguments, making it clear that they no longer have a place in the present.
The use of the word “still” in “sometimes someone still unearths” suggests that despite the passage of time and the progress made in the aftermath of war, remnants of old conflicts can resurface unexpectedly.
Those who knew
And finally as little as nothing.
In the ninth stanza, the poet explores the theme of generational change and the passing of knowledge. This stanza conveys a message about the evolution of collective memory and the potential for historical amnesia as time progresses.
The first line, “Those who knew,” refers to the individuals who directly experienced and understood the events of war and its aftermath. They possess a deep and intimate knowledge of what transpired during the conflict.
The following lines, “what was going on here / must make way for / those who know little,” introduce a shift in perspective. It suggests that as time goes on, the firsthand knowledge of the past gives way to a generation with less direct experience and understanding of the events.
The phrase “those who know little” portrays a dilution of knowledge, emphasizing the fading memory of historical events as they are passed down through generations.
The subsequent line, “And less than little,” further emphasizes the diminishing grasp of history as each new generation becomes further removed from the actual events.
The final line, “And finally as little as nothing,” underscores the theme of historical amnesia. It suggests that with the passage of time, there is a risk of losing all connection to the past, leading to a state of knowing “nothing” about the events that once shaped the world.
Through this stanza, Szymborska conveys a message about the transience of collective memory and the importance of preserving historical knowledge. The poet reflects on the cyclical nature of history and how each generation’s understanding of the past becomes increasingly distant and tenuous.
The repetition of “those who know” and “little” creates a sense of progression, illustrating the gradual fading of historical awareness over time.
The use of the word “finally” in “And finally as little as nothing” emphasizes the culmination of this process, where historical knowledge is reduced to mere fragments or lost entirely.
In the grass that has overgrown
gazing at the clouds.
In the final stanza (tenth stanza) of ‘The End and the Beginning,’ the poet delves into a contemplative and introspective moment, conveying a message about the enduring connection between nature and human experience and the need for reflection and contemplation amidst the chaos and destruction of war.
The first line, “In the grass that has overgrown causes and effects,” sets the scene and creates a powerful image of nature reclaiming the remnants of war. The overgrown grass symbolizes the passage of time and the gradual healing of the scars left by the conflict.
The subsequent lines, “someone must be stretched out / blade of grass in his mouth,” introduce a human presence in this natural setting. The phrase “stretched out” evokes a sense of relaxation and surrender, suggesting a moment of repose and contemplation.
The image of a “blade of grass in his mouth” adds a vivid touch, connecting the individual to the environment. This intimate connection with nature implies a merging of human experience with the natural world.
The last line, “gazing at the clouds,” signifies a moment of introspection and contemplation. The act of gazing at the clouds allows the individual to disconnect from the immediate turmoil and chaos of war and engage in a more profound reflection on the broader context of life.
Through this final stanza, Szymborska conveys a message about the resilience of nature and its ability to persist and reclaim spaces affected by human conflict. The presence of “someone” in this natural setting symbolizes the enduring connection between humanity and the environment, emphasizing the potential for solace and wisdom that nature offers.
The poet’s use of natural imagery, such as “grass” and “clouds,” creates a serene and meditative atmosphere. This natural backdrop stands in contrast to the devastation and destruction described earlier in the poem, offering a sense of hope and renewal.
The act of “gazing at the clouds” serves as a metaphor for contemplating the complexities of life and the interconnectedness of all things. It suggests that amidst the chaos and turmoil of war, moments of introspection and reflection are vital for finding meaning and understanding.
The tone is reflective, contemplative, and somber as it delves into the aftermath of war and the complexities of reconstruction.
The poem is entitled to highlight the cyclical nature of history, portraying how every war marks an end but also serves as a new beginning for the process of rebuilding and reflection.
The poem triggers feelings of introspection, melancholy, and resilience as it explores the enduring human spirit amidst the destruction of war and the need to find meaning and renewal in the aftermath.
Those who enjoyed this poem by Wislawa Szymborska may also wish to explore the following other poems:
- ‘And There Was a Great Calm’ by Thomas Hardy describes the horrors of WWI, the end of the war, and the ‘Great Calm’, which came on November 11th, 1918.
- ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ is a poem that William Butler Yeats wrote after losing his dear friend, William Butler, in World War I.
- ‘Counter-Attack’ is perhaps Siegfried Sassoon‘s longest poem that describes a failed counter-attack on the German line. From the very first stanza, a sense of hopelessness lurks in this poem.