Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.
Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
Happiness and spring, among other things,
were supposed to be getting closer.
Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.
Truth was supposed to hit home
before a lie.
A couple of problems weren’t going
to come up anymore:
hunger, for example,
and war, and so forth.
There was going to be respect
for helpless people’s helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.
Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.
Stupidity isn’t funny.
Wisdom isn’t gay.
isn’t that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.
God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.
“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.
Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naïve ones.
Wislawa Szymborska, born in Poland, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 for her poetry.
“The Century’s Decline” from View With a Grain of Sand, copyright © 1993 by Wislawa Szymborska; English translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh copyright © 1995 by Harcourt, Inc., reprinted by permission of the publisher.