Blog Post

Beware: She Strikes!

It's been a while since I posted to Arcade.  So many deadlines!  Several times a day I find myself mumbling, "But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near." 

Today, by accident, I found a replacement for this couplet.  A good thing, really.  After all, Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is a carpe diem poem.  The bit about time's winged chariot is supposed to convince the speaker's reluctant lover to stop being standoffish and finally jump into the sack with him before they grow old and die.  I've been misusing the quotation.  There's nothing remotely erotic about the thousand-and-three overdue bureaucratic tasks that I'm trying to force myself to accomplish.

Much better suited to my situation is another Renaissance lyric.  It's by the Polish poet Mikołaj Sęp-Szarzyński (c.1550-c.1581), and it's from his posthumously published collection Rytmy abo wiersze polskie [Rhythms or Polish Verses] (1601).  What makes it relevant?  It ditches Love and heads straight for Death.  As usual my translation is quick and dirty but I hope it gets the point across:

Napis na statuę abo na obraz śmierci

Córa to grzechowa
Świat skazić gotowa:
Wszytko, co się rodzi,
Bądź po ziemi chodzi,
Lub w morskiej wnętrzności
I wietrznej próżności,
Jako kosarz ziele
Ostrą kosą ściele;
Tak ta wszystko składa,
Ani opowiada
Nikomu swojego
Zamachu strasznego.
I wy, co to ćcicie,
Prawda, że nie wiecie,
Jeśli nie przymierza
Ta sroga szampierza
Któremu do szyje.
Strzeż się: oto bije.

* * * *

Inscription on a Statue or on an Image of Death

Sin's daughter is ready
To corrupt the world.
With a sharp scythe she cuts,
As harvesters do greens,
All that's born,
All that goes on land,
Or through the sea's guts,
Or through the airy void.
She stores everything up
And warns no one
Of her dire attack.
And you, worshipping,
Yes, you don't know
Whether the harsh foe
Is sizing someone
Up to the neck.
Beware:  she strikes!

Two of these couplets stick in my mind.  First is "Córa to grzechowa / Świat skazić gotowa."  The rhyme here is especially memorable:  grzechowa ("of the sins") / gotowa ("ready").  The words share the same initial sound (g) and stress pattern (duh DAH duh).  It's also a dynamite opening sentence.  It takes a New Testament lesson about why we die ("the wages of sin are death"--Rom 6:23) and fancifully rewrites the story via personification (because sin brings death into the world the poet renames death "the daughter of sins").  Additionally, in contrast to Marvell's mistress, there's nothing shy or demure or seductive about this woman.  She's here to "corrupt the world," more specifically, to contaminate it, to ruin its perfection once and for all.

The other two lines I keep reciting are "Jako kosarz ziele / Ostrą kosą ściele," "She cuts with a sharp scythe / Just as a harvester [cuts] greens."  The trochaic rhythm here is regular and pronounced. The first two words in each line limit themselvs to a small range of vowels--/o/, /a/, and /ą/--and the endwords contain only one vowel, /e/.  (The Polish vowel /ą/ is nasalized and sounds like the /-on/ in the French greeting bonjour.)  Terse, symmetrical, orderly:  another eminently quotable quote.  Well, if the right occasion ever arises.  Oh, Sarah, now that you bring up the topic of mortality and impending doom, I'm reminded of a witty line about a "sharp scythe" . . .

In general, the poem moves along swiftly and vigorously.  It announces its subject (death is in the house!), describes her dominion over all things, laments that she acts without warning, and then, bam, Sęp-Szarzyński addresses "you" the reader.  "You" might be devout, that is, you might be "worshipping," but that doesn't make any difference, death could be "sizing" you up right this moment.  The last line--"Beware:  she strikes!"--is like a scene in a horror movie in which the serial killer jumps out and attacks.  The poem then abruptly ends, there's a cut to black, and you know that the villain has claimed another victim.  Except this time the victim--is you!  (Cue maniacal laughter.)

Sęp-Szarzyński is considered a forerunner of the Polish Baroque, and one can see why.  This lyric offers no consolation, no insight into a larger order of things that can help a person gain perspective on personal loss and suffering.  Instead, the poem both dreads and dramatizes a life's quick passage.  In doing so, it experiments inventively with pacing.  For example, its sentences vary greatly in length (first two lines, next six, then three, then five, and finally one).  This free unfolding of the poem's syntax and argumentation proceeds in tension with the clock-work-like predictable and insistent arrival of end rhymes and mid-line caesurae throughout.  Moments tick tick tick, Sęp-Szarzyński insists, whatever you do, whether you speed up or lurch to a stop.  The play here between dynamism and stasis suggests less the heroism and grandeur of Michelangelo (1475-1564) than the sweep and sprawl and perilous poise of the seventeenth century's paragon, Bernini (1598-1680).

OK, enough contemplation of The End.  I turn forty in two weeks, and I really should find some happier, unicorns-and-daffodils poems to occupy my spare moments.

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.