“At A Certain Age” and “Account” – Czeslaw Milosz

At A Certain Age We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers. […]

David Zahl / 10.6.10
At A Certain Age

We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half-opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”


The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless towards the candle’s flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own – but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.

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9 responses to ““At A Certain Age” and “Account” – Czeslaw Milosz”

  1. John Zahl says:


  2. Robin Anderson says:

    How perfectly he gets it. Could it be that God loves even toads? Maybe he especially loves toads, I hope he heard that.

  3. dpotter says:


  4. Michael Cooper says:

    Milosz is so devastating and yet so calm, a little like Frost in that. This simple and direct little piece captures perfectly the sense of being at a dead end of the self to which there is no escape. The physical universe is indifferent to any moral sense that "confession of sin" requires; the reality of human social interaction does not put up with the weight of individual anguish, while the "paid for" concern of the secular confessor is inherently false. The "church" on the other hand, wants only to hear the confession of a free moral agent, implicitly capable of doing better in the future, not the confession that is not so much "I have sinned" but that "I see myself as I am…an impossibly hideous croaking sin-toad." This "church" has no answer to the ontological reality, because this is the "church" that has turned its back on imputation.

  5. Ken says:

    Michael, I enjoyed your comments. I'm not sure Milosz is indicting the church however. While he knew church teaching, I get a sense from the rest of his work that a keen awareness of his own sinful state was about as far as he got. He did want to believe, and in his later work it sometimes sounds as if he has both faith and a measure peace – in "Late Ripeness," for example. If he had a sense of being forgiven, I don't see it in his work. And if I'm correct, that's ironic, because much of his poetry is suffused with tenderness towards people in his past.

  6. Michael Cooper says:

    Ken–I agree with your assessment of Milosz. In this particular work, I think that he sees that the "confession" he has of "who he IS" rather than "what he has done," is something that the "church" at least in his experience and understanding of it, has no more room for than do any of the other entities he names. The conclusion concerning the lack of an understanding of the doctrine of "imputation" being what causes the "church" not to be able to process such a confession is mine, not something that I am attributing to the poem itself or to Milosz. What the work does give is a perfect sense of the problem, not an analysis of the cause nor its solution.

  7. Ken says:

    Michael, again I enjoyed reading your thoughts. It's great to run across someone who's read Milosz! He's become my favorite poet.

  8. Michael Cooper says:

    Ken, I really like his work as well, although I am sure you are much more familiar with it. I have The Collected Poems, which reflect his work over many years of translation along with co-workers and students at Berkeley. These poems are so good in translation, but it makes me want to learn Polish just to experience them in the original. Too bad I am so lazy.

  9. Nameless says:

    It indeed is a wonderful poem. He truly understands looking back and realizing that you have been seeing yourself as “Handsome and Noble” and realizing a lazy toad has been their all along. This reminds me of a quote from one of his earlier poems: “Do not gaze into the pools of the past. Their corroded surface will mirror A face different from the one you expected.” I am surprised to find that he wrote lines like these with a past like his. He fought in WWII and experiened many horrible things, but he was a successful writer and poet. Did he not look back at his past with admiration and pride? At a Certain Age is definetely a poem I and many others can connect to personlly, and I am not even that old!

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