The Turn of the Century

by Wislawa Szymborska


It was supposed to be better than the rest, our twentieth century,
But it won’t have time to prove it.
Its years are numbered,
its step unsteady,
its breath short.
Already too much has happened
that was not supposed to happen.
What was to come
has yet to come.
Spring was to be on its way,
and happiness, among other things.

Fear was to leave the mountains and valleys.
The truth was supposed to finish before the lie.

Certain misfortunes
were never to happen again
such as war and hunger and so forth.

The defenselessness of the defenseless,
was going to be respected.
Same for trust and the like.

Whoever wanted to enjoy the world
faces an impossible task.

Stupidity is not funny.
Wisdom is not cheerful.

is no longer the same young girl
et cetera. Alas.

God was at last to believe in man:
good and strong,
But good and strong
are still two different people.

How to live–someone asked me in a letter,
someone I had wanted
to ask the very same thing.

Again and as always,
and as seen above
there are no questions more urgent
than the naive ones.

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak.

A Word on Statistics




by Wislawa Szymborska


Out of every hundred people


those who always know better:



Unsure of every step:

nearly all the rest.


Ready to help,

as long as it doesn’t take long:



Always good,

because they cannot be otherwise:

four–well, maybe five.


Able to admire without envy:



Led to error

by youth (which passes):

sixty, plus or minus.


Those not to be messed with:

forty and four.


Living in constant fear

of someone or something:



Capable of happiness:

twenty-some-odd at most.


Harmless alone,

turning savage in crowds:

more than half, for sure.



when forced by circumstances:

it’s better not to know

not even approximately.


Wise in hindsight:

not many more

than wise in foresight.


Getting nothing out of life but things:


(although I would like to be wrong).


Doubled over in pain,

without a flashlight in the dark:


sooner or later.


Those who are just:

quite a few at thirty-five.


But if it takes effort to understand:



Worthy of empathy:




one hundred out of one hundred–

a figure that has never varied yet.


trans. from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak