Past and Present Meanings

How could the painter Pieter Bruegel and writer Wislawa Szymborska have anything remotely in common, when the

fact is that four hundred years separate their works? A painting by Pieter Bruegel connects these two artists over

four hundred years of time.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was born sometime between 1525 and 1530. Originally a student of Pieter Coecke van

Alost, he was later accepted into the Antwerp painters' guild in 1551. In 1563 he married Coecke's daughter, and

they later had two children. Both children would prove to have their own artistic abilities and would carry on the

painting tradition. Only six years after his marriage, he would be buried at the same church in which he had been


Pieter Bruegel the Elder was considered, "the most perfect painter of his century"(198) by Walter S. Gibson, an

author of a book on Bruegel. He chose not to follow the same Flemish style that was popular amongst many fellow

artists. This made him an individualist. Surprisingly, his works grew popular nonetheless. Bruegel often painted

scenes of vast landscapes, but was more known for his paintings of peasant life. Because he spent much of his time

working on peasant scenes, many think of him as one of the Flemish peasants. In reality, he was the same as any

townsman and actually regarded peasants as a form of low life and a social class to mock. This mockery is evident

in his painting Peasant Wedding and Feast. The wedding takes place in a barn, people are shoveling food into their

mouths, and as E.H. Gombrich puts it, the bride "sits quietly, with folded hands and a grin of utter contentment on

her stupid face"(380). This seems to be one of Bruegel's happier paintin!

gs of peasants, and their activities.

Due to the detailed nature of his paintings, Bruegel's works have often aided in deciphering events of the past. For

example, the Labours of the Month paintings distinctly show us the monthly routines of a peasant and his family: the

spring planting of fields, the long summer hours of work, and the fall harvesting. Without these paintings, peasant

life would not be portrayed as realistically as it was. When you hear that peasants had it bad, it is difficult to really

understand how bad it was. When you look at these paintings, you see little joy or happiness in the routines of

peasants' life.

One observer of Bruegel's works is Wislawa Szymborska, last year's winner of the Nobel prize for literature. Now

seventy-three years old, Szymborska lives in Krakow, Poland. Married twice (once to a writer and once to a poet),

she is considered to be one of the finest European artists of these times. She is also one of five Polish winners of the

Nobel prize for literature. Upon winning, Szymborska was quoted as saying, "I'm afraid I will not have a quiet life

now. It is hard to believe but I was never hoping for an award" (Heintz). This year's prize was the richest ever at

$1.12 million dollars. With only a few close friends, Szymborska has always led a private life, but that may all

change now that she is very rich.

Edward Hirsch says that "her writing has often reflected philosophical and ethical issues rather than the post-modern

fads that contemporary writers everywhere have been swept along by"(46). This next piece of her writing shows her

philosophical tendencies.

Nothing can ever happen twice.

In consequence, the sorry fact is

that we arrive here improvised

and leave without the chance to practice.(Heintz 48)

She is saying that we can never be prepared for what the future may have in store for us. We don't have enough time

in life for second chances, for "practice." Unfortunately, we cannot go back and fix the things that practice would

have made perfect.

The opening lines of many of her poems often seem trivial and obvious, when read or heard separately. After

reading the rest of the poem, the opening line seems to take on more meaning and significance. In the opening line

of "Nothing Can Happen Twice," my first reaction is, "Well, that's not true." But after I finished the poem, I realized

that she is right. We can never really relive our past experiences. Nothing is exactly the same as it was before.

A poet and a