In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.
A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.
Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh
Just the other day I was defending self-hatred to a friend, telling him that more people should be, if not self-loathing, at least self-skeptical. Typically for Szymborska, she makes a subtle and even profound philosophical point in an understated, witty way. There is no hierarchy among these animals; the lion is not the (human-anointed) King of Beasts, but on a level with the louse. It's all Tennyson's "Nature, red in tooth and claw." As a Polish citizen during the twentieth century, Szymborska certainly would have known a lot about people who would be wiser and better if they were ashamed of themselves. As American citizens in the twenty-first century – well, draw your own conclusions.
I've posted a few other Szymborska poems: one here and then here on the occasion of her death. This is from Poems New and Collected 1957 - 1997. The edition I have appears to be out of print but there is a paperback, called simply Poems New and Collected. I don't know if it contains additional works.