Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on Great Love
By Maria Popova
“For one human being to love another,” Rilke wrote to a young friend, “that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
Two generations later, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) — another visionary poet with uncommon insight into the human psyche — examined the forbearance and hardiness of heart that love requires in a beautiful short piece simply titled “Great Love,” found in her Nonrequired Reading (public library) — a collection of Szymborska’s short, soaring essays inspired by various books she devoured during one voracious reading binge in the 1970s.
After reading the extraordinary memoir of the love of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s life, Anna — the record of one of history’s truest and most beautiful loves, in the course of which Anna buoyed Fyodor through an inordinate share of hardship that would have sunk most — Szymborska reflects on a particularly trying period in the couple’s life and considers how true love swathes its bearers with a superhuman resilience of spirit:
Anna was pregnant during this period, and it was an exceptionally difficult pregnancy, perhaps because of her perpetually strained nerves. But… she was happy, she wanted to be happy, she managed to be happy and couldn’t even conceive of greater happiness…
We’re dealing here with the phenomenon of great love.
With an eye to the unseeing cynicism with which people often view what they don’t understand — especially the private universe of any great love, incomprehensible to the outside observer and often incomprehensible even to the lovers who inhabit it themselves — Szymborska likens great love to the blind optimism of plants and adds:
Detached observers always ask in such cases: “So what does she (he) see in him (her)?” Such questions are best left in peace: great love is never justified. It’s like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves? But it does exist and it really is green — clearly, then, it’s getting whatever it needs to survive.
Complement this particular portion of the endlessly rewarding Nonrequired Reading, which also gave us Szymborska’s meditations on why we read, the necessity of fear, and our cosmic destiny, with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s compatriot Leo Tolstoy on love’s paradoxical demands, and Lebanese-American poet, philosopher, and painter Kahlil Gibran on weathering the uncertainties of love, then revisit Szymborska on how our certitudes constrain us, her ode to the number pi, and her stunning poem “Possibilities.”
Published August 9, 2018