John Paul II’s Song of the Earth

Most years, I teach, in one of my seminars, Karol Wojtyla’s – that’s to say, John Paul II’s – play The Jeweler’s Shop. A quietly dramatic work that depicts three marriages, it consistently engrosses the students. Does it capture them because it’s an ingenious verse drama, or for some other reason?

The most obvious answer is that the students have little idea what marriage is, and this play shows them with power. Marriage is a heated, contested item in our long, wretched, and ugly cultural debate. One consequence of this has been to silence, in much of polite society, any discussion of the internal components, much less the true essence, of marriage.

Young people are of course curious about what marriage will entail for their lives, but nobody wants to tell them. The Jeweler’s Shop has some “hard sayings” on the matter (though no more so than Our Lord’s), and students typically respond with gratitude to hear, at last, the plain truth that betrothed love, like Christ’s, is sacrificial in nature. Betrothed love also gives life through death.

Meditating on that play’s power, I decided to return to JPII’s poems to see if I could find anything of equal achievement. I first read his poems two decades ago and came away mostly unimpressed. Writing of one late poem, “Roman Triptych,” Robert Royal observes that it contains profundities but its “aesthetic merit” is “modest.” Joseph Bottom, reviewing the same volume in First Things, remained uncertain if the pope’s poetry was any good. The translations into English are “generally lifeless,” but perhaps more sensitive hands could change that.

I once asked a Polish student to read aloud from her Polish text of The Jeweler’s Shop, while I sat with my translation. I could hear the syntax and cadence brought over exactly. The English translations we have seem to be very literal, accurate but charmless.

As I made my way through the collected poems, I kept wondering what a more felicitous hand might have done with them. Beyond that, I saw that some of the poems introduce themes of interest in themselves, but which also help us appreciate JPII’s sensibility as it drew to a unity Polish romantic nationalism, the spirit of Christianity, and – surprisingly – the aesthetics of communism, foisted on the Polish people during the Cold War.

The Polish critic Krzysztof Dybciak makes clear that Wojtyla’s earliest verse closely derives from the Polish romantic movement in its celebration of the natural world and country life. The short lyrics and ballads convey an almost pagan enthusiasm for the rites of spring, infused with hints of Marian devotion. After Wojtyla entered the priesthood, the poems grow into longer, modernist, often fragmentary sequences, that leap from viewpoint to viewpoint, or between objects thematically, but not dramatically, joined.


“The Quarry” (1956), a meditation on Wojtyla’s forced labor during the Nazi occupation, opens:

Listen: the even knocking of hammers,
So much their own,
I project onto the people
To test the strength of each blow.
Listen now: electric current
Cuts through a river of rock.
And a thought grows in me day after day:
The greatness of work is inside man.

Here, Wojtyla’s depictions of nature borrow their sensibility from the best of Marxist socialist realism, such as the Soviet film Earth (1930), where the rhythms of human labor are shown to move symbiotically with those of the organic world and even of mineral. Rock itself, far from being inert material, has a dynamism to it here that would be lacking in a more conventional romantic’s work.

In The Jeweler’s Shop, the image of the earth cracking to unleash a torrent of water is the author’s preferred way of expressing the infinite love that bursts the “seams” of the finite body of man. Here, the power of human ingenuity to harness nature – “electric current” – runs through rock that is not passive, but itself a “river,” that is, flowing and dynamic in itself.

In the play and the poems, the sense of nature and man as both dynamic anticipates the pope’s later philosophical concerns with the subjectivity of persons: we come to understand ourselves only by entering into relation with other subjects, whether in betrothed love, in Christ’s love of us, or in our active participation in the world.

That line “The greatness of work is inside man” could easily serve as a summary of JPII’s later encyclical, Laborem Exercens (1981). There, he teaches that work is for man; its primary value is “subjective,” meaning, work’s active purpose lies in building man up, in making him more fully human. To think of work primarily in terms of its “objective” or “economistic” value (the thing made and what we can sell it for) is to misunderstand it.

The relation between the human subject and nature as subject finds focus in his several poems on the Polish nation. In fact, in those poems, his work comes most fully alive. This reminded me of the best work of the Nobel-Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz was by disposition a cosmopolitan aesthete who wanted to write about the freedom of beauty for its own sake. But as Poland suffered occupation under, first, the Nazi, then Communist, regimes, Milosz reluctantly turned his poetry to bear witness to the destruction – and the heroism of Polish life it evoked. Similarly, John Paul II’s poems gain their drama rather from the interweaving and tension between nation and Church in Polish history.

The land forms the human being and culture with its “hidden energies.” But the nation is itself formed by the Church. The Church “grows beyond” the nation, and yet confers permanence on it, as it does on the individual person. At the same time, because the spirit is invisible, the life of the Church, of Christianity, inevitably becomes visible in the landscape and culture of the nation. Finally, as the life of Saint Stanislas and JPII’s experience in Communist Poland both testify, the nation-state can also become the enemy of the same Church that gives life to the nation as a whole.

It was already clear, from the pope’s final book, Memory and Identity (2004), how passionately he cherished Church and nation as formative of the human person. His greatest poems deepen our understanding of that dual passion by drawing us into it, not as abstract reflection, but through the dramatic experience of a saint and patriot trying to find words to express the complementarity and fruitfulness of his divine and earthly loves.


*Image: St. John Paul II and Czeslaw Milosz in 1980 [Photo credit: University of California, Berkeley]

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.