29 July 2018


In the second term of our Development of Poetry class, our teacher had assigned for us to conduct a close reading exercise and write a detailed analysis of the poem “Torture” by renowned Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, which reads as follows:

Nothing has changed.

The body is painful,

it must eat, breathe air, and sleep,

it has thin skin, with blood right beneath,

it has a goodly supply of teeth and nails,

its bones are brittle, its joints extensible.

In torture, all this is taken into account.


Nothing has changed.

The body trembles, as it trembled

before and after the founding of Rome,

in the twentieth century before and after Christ.

Torture is, the way it’s always been, only the earth has shrunk,

and whatever happens, feels like it’s happening next door.


Nothing has changed.

Only there are more people,

and next to old transgressions, new ones have appeared,

real, alleged, momentary, none,

but the scream, the body’s answer for them —

was, is, and always will be the scream of innocence,

in accord with the age-old scale and register.


Nothing has changed.

Except maybe manners, ceremonies, dances.

Yet the gesture of arms shielding the head

has remained the same.

The body writhes, struggles, and tries to break free.

Bowled over, it falls, draws in its knees,

bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.

Except for the courses of rivers,

the contours of forests, seashores, deserts, and icebergs.

Among these landscapes the poor soul winds,

vanishes, returns, approaches, recedes.

A stranger to itself, evasive,

at one moment sure, the next unsure of its existence,

while the body is and is and is

and has no place to go.


When reading Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry, one is immediately struck by her seemingly effortless ability to juxtapose the most pressing and dramatic situations with the purest and most sophisticated language. One of her poems that perhaps best demonstrates this is “Torture,” which forces the reader to excavate its gruelling topic into daylight within the utterly enjoyable linguistic nuances. The poem can be interpreted as being overall interested in humankind’s capability to knowingly inflict pain on others and how such acts are capable, in return, to tear the body and soul apart.

We encounter the first demonstration of this great laceration in the first stanza, as the body is described in its most basic elements; it is merely skin and bones, nails and teeth, a bundle of fragile joints and bones. Both the sharpness of the language and the last line which reads, “in torture, all this is taken into account,” makes it possible to interpret these lines as depicting a process of objectification and dehumanization that makes the act itself possible. This characterization of the body continues throughout the poem as the body trembles, writhes, struggles, swells, drools and bleeds. In order for the act of torture to be executed, however, it can never be seen as carrying a soul, or a part of the whole of existence.

The language not only draws our attention to how the body is objectified during the unforgivable acts humans engage in, but it also creates an air of urgency and forcefulness; especially when attention is paid to what comes next after  the ever famous beginning of each stanza which reads; “nothing has changed.” Szymborska notes, for instance, that although “new transgressions may have appeared next to old ones,” the sheer exposure and mutilation of the body continues as “the gesture of arms shielding the head has remains the same.” This certain contrast may be important in an attempt to understand the poem completely; while the acts of torture are defined with more gentle words as “transgressions, manners, ceremonies,” and “dances,” the language that defines the body remains gruesome as ever; “Bowled over, it falls, draws in its knees / Bruises, swells, drools and bleeds.”

In a way, this distinct separation between the depictions of the body and the elements that surround it is also a separation between their respective permanence and temporality. Although places, people and mannerisms are bound to change, the body remains the same and universal. Therefore nothing –that really matters – changes. The circumstantial parameters are bound to yield to time; they are temporary and somewhat non-crucial, they therefore acquire more allusive, idealistic adjectives.  Whereas the body has the capability to remain the same; it is permanent, much like its cries, screams and any other graphic descriptions it picks up within the poem.

The last stanza of the poem, on the other hand, may be dealing with the topic at hand more differently than others. It is less concerned with the body’s relationship with all the elements that surround it, and more concerned with its relationship with the soul; which is considered to be free to wander among the “courses of rivers, seashores, deserts and icebergs / …while the body is and is and is, and has no place to go.” The divide that was sketched between the body’s permanence against the temporality of everything else now shows itself as a limitation; it is quite literally stuck, and whereas the mind and soul are free to wander off to wherever they please, the body, though it may scratch, yell and bleed, has nowhere to go. This, however, brings another layer of universality to the poem; although our minds and souls might be wanderers, we all share that same immobile body.

Another possible reading for this stanza might also be about the absolute destructive power of torture, and how it rips the bond that holds the body and soul together. We have noted the shortcomings and limitations of the body before and the existence of the soul is not a very merry one either, the language and descriptions that talk about the soul make us believe that it is no longer fixed, safe or grounded.  Szymborska writes;
Among these landscapes the poor soul winds,

vanishes, returns, approaches, recedes.

A stranger to itself, evasive,

at one moment sure, the next unsure of its existence…

At the end, perhaps, the truth lies between this different interpretations; the first one which compares and contrasts the features of the body and the soul and derives larger and universal implications from it, and the second one which views these lines as a demonstration of how torture completely annihilates the sacred space that the body and soul co-occupy.

Another interesting topic of conversation that rises from this poem is that of pain. Physical pain is uniquely different from any other type of physical sensation, in that it cannot be really expressed and a complete understanding of the other person is quite impossible. Besides the excruciating pain that is inflicted on people in torture, the absolute unsharable nature of the event also creates an air of unbearable isolation. As a result of this being an isolating and traumatizing experience, it is possible that our first instinct to be to run away from it and forget it. However, Szymborska keeps reminding us: nothing has changed, and perhaps nothing ever will. Alongside other possible readings, these refrains can also be revealing the human nature that is either unwilling or incapable of remembering the horrific instances. “Torture” thus becomes an ode to the past as well as a warning for the future


Written for my “Development of Poetry II” class in 23.05.2016

Image: The Torture of Prometheus by Gioacchino Assereto 1600 -1649

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