'A Task' by Czeslaw Milosz

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In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.

Editor 1 Interpretation

A Task by Czeslaw Milosz: A Masterpiece Exploring the Nature of Existence

Czeslaw Milosz was a Nobel Prize-winning poet and writer who explored themes of identity, memory, and mortality in his works. His poem, A Task, is a haunting masterpiece that delves deep into the nature of existence and the human condition. Written in 1956, A Task reflects Milosz's experiences of living in a world ravaged by war and political upheaval. In this 4000-word literary criticism and interpretation of A Task, we explore the themes, symbolism, and imagery in the poem, and how they paint a vivid portrait of the human experience.

The Paradox of Existence

The theme of existence is central to A Task. Milosz explores the paradox of being alive yet conscious of our own mortality. He writes:

We die laughing Out of ourselves Lightly, swiftly As a bird on the wing.

These lines capture the fleeting nature of life and how it can end suddenly and unexpectedly. Milosz suggests that death is always lurking around the corner, waiting to claim us. Yet, despite this, he also suggests that there is a certain joy in the transience of life. The idea that we die laughing suggests that there is a release in death, a freedom from the constraints of existence.

But what is the task that Milosz is referring to in the poem? The answer lies in the final stanza:

All that remains to us Is to be brave And to be courageous In the face of eternity.

Milosz suggests that our task in life is to be brave in the face of our own mortality. To accept the fact that we will die, and to make the most of the time we have. This is a powerful message that resonates with many readers, especially those who have experienced loss or who are grappling with their own mortality.

The Symbolism of Water

Throughout the poem, Milosz employs powerful and evocative imagery to convey his themes. One recurring symbol is that of water. Water is a powerful metaphor for life, with its constant movement and change. Milosz writes:

The watermill revolved With its ponderous wheel. The roof was covered with tiles, Each overlapping the other.

These lines suggest the constant motion of life, with the wheel of the watermill turning endlessly. The overlapping tiles on the roof also suggest the cyclical nature of life, with one generation giving way to the next, much like the tiles on a roof.

But water is also a symbol of purity and renewal, especially when it is associated with rain. Milosz writes:

And still the rain fell, Polishing the roof tiles And gurgling in the gutters.

These lines suggest a sense of renewal and regeneration, with the rain polishing the roof tiles and cleansing the world. This imagery is especially powerful when we consider the context in which the poem was written. In 1956, Poland was still recovering from the devastation of World War II, and Milosz suggests that there is a sense of hope and renewal even in the midst of chaos and destruction.

The Theme of Memory

Another important theme in A Task is memory. Milosz suggests that memory is the key to understanding our place in the world and our connection to others. He writes:

And the dead were with us Blending their voices With the sound of the rain.

These lines suggest that the dead are not completely gone but are still present in our memories. The sound of the rain and the blending of voices suggest a sense of continuity, with the past and present merging together.

Milosz also explores the idea that memory can be both a source of comfort and a burden. He writes:

We remembered the dead Who had been young with us But now were no more.

These lines suggest a sense of nostalgia and a longing for the past. But they also suggest a sense of loss and sadness, as the dead are no longer with us. Milosz suggests that memory can be a double-edged sword, with the joy of remembering also comes the pain of loss.

The Power of Language

Language is another key theme in A Task. Milosz suggests that language is a powerful tool for understanding the world and our place in it. He writes:

And we spoke to each other In words that soared Like the larks in the sky.

These lines suggest a sense of freedom and joy in language, with the words soaring like birds in the sky. Milosz suggests that language can help us transcend the limitations of our existence and connect us to something greater.

But language can also be a source of confusion and misunderstanding. Milosz writes:

And yet we did not understand Each other's words For we had learned different tongues In different lands.

These lines suggest a sense of division and separation, with language acting as a barrier between people. Milosz suggests that our ability to communicate with others is limited by our own experiences and the language we have learned.


A Task is a complex and powerful poem that explores the nature of existence, memory, and language. Milosz's use of symbolism, imagery, and language creates a vivid and evocative portrait of the human condition. The poem suggests that our task in life is to be brave in the face of our own mortality, to remember those who have gone before us, and to use language to connect with others and understand the world around us. A Task is a masterpiece of modern poetry and a testament to the enduring power of language and the human spirit.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

A Task: A Poem of Reflection and Responsibility

Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, wrote "A Task" in 1956, during a time of political turmoil in his native Poland. The poem is a reflection on the role of the poet in society and the responsibility that comes with that role. It is a powerful and thought-provoking piece that speaks to the importance of art and the need for artists to engage with the world around them.

The poem begins with a simple statement: "We have to admit that we are not the people / Who should be singing this sweet and bitter song." This opening line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as Milosz acknowledges that he and his fellow poets are not necessarily the ones who should be speaking out about the issues of the day. However, he goes on to say that they have no choice but to do so, as they are the ones who have been given the gift of language and the ability to express themselves in ways that others cannot.

Milosz then goes on to describe the world around him, with its "cities full of hatred, fear, and lies" and its "rivers of blood." He speaks of the suffering of the innocent and the cruelty of those in power. It is a bleak picture, but one that is all too familiar to anyone who has lived through times of war and oppression.

Despite this darkness, however, Milosz remains hopeful. He believes that it is the poet's duty to speak out against injustice and to use their words to bring about change. He writes, "We have to sing, if only in our own hearts, / The song of the future, the song of the world to come." This is a powerful statement, as it suggests that the poet has a role to play in shaping the future and creating a better world.

Milosz then goes on to describe the task that lies before the poet. It is a daunting one, as he writes, "We have to take over the world like a disease, / And spread our voice like a fever." This is a powerful metaphor, as it suggests that the poet's words have the power to infect and transform the world around them. It is a reminder that words are not just empty sounds, but can have a profound impact on those who hear them.

The poem ends with a call to action, as Milosz writes, "We have to become the people we wanted to be, / To save ourselves and the world that waits for us." This is a powerful statement, as it suggests that the poet has a responsibility not just to speak out, but to live their lives in a way that reflects their values and beliefs. It is a reminder that words alone are not enough, but must be backed up by action.

Overall, "A Task" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that speaks to the importance of art and the role of the artist in society. It is a reminder that words have power, and that the poet has a responsibility to use that power for good. It is a call to action, urging us all to become the people we want to be and to work towards creating a better world.

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