Everyday, we take many norms for granted. We take certain things in life as standards and often encounter them without giving so much as a second thought. One of these things is the belief that the value of life of a human vastly outweighs that of an animal – or in the case of this poem, an insect. In ‘Seen from Above’, Szymborska underscores the ingrained interpretation of the pecking order of life, which we take for granted. What does this mean? We as humans do not stop and ruminate the tragedy of the death of a bird, or mourn the passing of an ant. We see the life of a human as higher up on the pecking order than that of animals, and while we may not consciously register this belief everyday, it does exist, and we do subscribe to this belief that is deeply ingrained in our mindsets. But before I go on, make no mistake: Szymborska’s poem does no seek to lash out and declaim against this belief of superiority. Instead, she hopes to bring such a widespread, yet unspoken belief to light, and compel us to reconsider an opinion commonly and without question, held as true.
‘Seen from Above’ is an exploration of our appropriation of value above other beings by human standards. From the very start, Szymborska uses the title to allude to the supposed pecking order of living things. ‘Seen from Above’ almost seems to suggest the superiority with which we, as humans, look and consider animals.
The entire poem is rife with contrasts between our perception of the death of a person and that of animals and insects. At the outset, Szymborska offers a dry depiction of a beetle which she observes has died. However, in so doing, she points out something that most of us would be quick to ignore – the difference in attitude with which we treat the death of a human and that of the beetle. She observes that, ‘Instead of death’s confusion, [there is] tidiness and order’. Here, Szymborska subtly makes a comparison: rather than the din and confusion, commotion and emotion that usually follows the death of a person, the death of an everyday insect is commemorated only by ‘one glance’ and is largely ignored and neglected.
This contrast between attitudes persists throughout the poem. When animals die, they are ‘dead’, but not ‘deceased’. Their death is a simple fact, devoid of emotional attachment. In comparing the death of animals to humans, Szymborska claims they die ‘more shallowly’, ‘less tragically’. They die ‘more shallowly’, their deaths marking the loss of something of lesser profundity, of limited importance. Here, the repetitive use of such comparative adverbs as ‘more’ and ‘less’, in order to juxtapose the value of their life beside that of humans. The loss of an animal life is less tragic, is an inconsequential happening, and deserves minimal recognition. Because human life is higher in the pecking order of living things, and because humans are capable of emotions that animals are not, their death, at least through our eyes, are of lesser value. Szymborska reinforces this notion by saying in stanza 2 that when animals die, they leave with less ‘feeling’, and ‘less world’, as a way to suggest that the animals die less holistically, and mark the end of a life of lesser importance. Note the interesting use of ‘world here’; Szymborska seems to be suggesting that animals pass away more shallowly because they account for less importance and less value in the world as a whole.
This lack of emotion at the death of the beetle is exemplified by the pace, punctuation and word choice throughout the entire poem. The entire poem is well-paced, and bears none of the grammatical erraticism of some other poems. Szymborska uses a clinical tone, a steady pace, to reflect the lack of emotion that humans hold toward the death of anything other than themselves, to mirror the way in which we assign a greater value to human life than to animal life. There is also a subtle tone of conceit that pervades the poem, alluding to the...
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