Wisława Szymborska



Born: 1923 in Poland

Lives: Krakow

Won: Nobel Prize for Literature 1996


Key Biographical Details:

·         Lived in Poland during WW2 and Communist / Stalinist control of Eastern Europe

·         Originally she was loyal to Communist party and Stalinist ideology. She joined the Polish United Workers’ Party and wrote poems in praise of Stalin and Lenin, for example ‘For the Youth that Builds Nowa Huta’ which is about the construction of a Stalinist industrial town near Krakow.

·         Subsequently, as Stalin and the Communist leaders became more and more dictatorial, she became disillusioned with politics, changed her views, denounced her earlier poetry and by the 1980’s was eventually writing articles against the Communist leaders of Poland.

·         Married the poet Adam Wlodek in 1948 but divorced him six years later. She married again although her second husband died in the early 1990’s.


Major Themes:

·         Initially, her poems praised communism. When accepting the ‘Goethe Prize’ for literature in 1991, Szymborksa said: “Unfortunately I succumbed to [the temptation of seeing the world through the Communist ideology]. Quite a few years have passed since those times but I still remember all the phases of this experience: from joyful faith in the fact that with the help of doctrine I could see the world more clearly and more broadly - to the discovery that that which I was seeing so clearly and broadly was not at all the real world any more but an artificial construction hiding it.”;

·         Later she has expressed her pessimism about the future of mankind and the human condition, including:

o        the temporary nature of human existence,

o        our insignificance in comparison to more powerful universal forces: time, chance, history, etc

o        the impossibility of establishing a real connection between people

o        and the brittleness and unreliability of human bonds, especially love;

·         Realisations such as these lend an element of despair to her poetry and Szymborska often employs wit, humour and irony to lessen this sense of emptiness and suffering;

·         In addition, there is also delight at the beauty of life with its moving uniqueness, randomness and illogicality and at times she seems to believe in the power of poetry to preserve some element of this beauty;

·         Ultimately, this leads to something of a conflict in her poetry. She is rational and clear headed enough to see how inevitably disappointing life is, but emotional enough to be amazed at the fact that she is alive at all and this sense of amazement leads her to explore the large truths that exist in ordinary, everyday things. Both of these sides exist in her poetry and, again when accepting the Goethe prize, she said: "Reality reveals itself sometimes from a side that is so chaotic and terrifyingly inconceivable that one would like to discover in it some more enduring order, make a division into that which is important and unimportant, old and new, hampering and helpful. This is a dangerous temptation because often some theory squeezes itself in between the world and progress, some ideology, promising to segregate and explain everything.” The trick is to embrace the world as it really is and celebrate what is there.



·         Her poems are often simple and colloquial, despite touching on large existential issues;

·         Szymborska frequently employs irony, paradox, contradiction, and understatement, to illuminate here themes, and philosophical obsessions;

·         Wit is also a means of allowing her to consider human nature without pomposity and she uses exaggeration and parody to break through sentimentality and poke fun at our own sense of self importance;