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'The Bright Lights of Sarajevo' by Tony Harrison Poem Analysis

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Tony Harrison

Tony Harrison

Tony Harrison and a Summary of 'The Bright Lights of Sarajevo'

'The Bright Lights of Sarajevo' is one of three war poems Tony Harrison wrote from the front line of the Bosnian War, which raged for four years, from 1992 to 1996. The other two poems are 'The Cycles of Donji Vakuf' and 'Essentials'.

All were published in the British newspaper the Guardian in 1995, 'The Bright Lights of Sarajevo' appearing on 15th September. Harrison was sponsored by the newspaper to cover the conflict in the former capital of Yugoslavia, Sarajevo, and didn't disappoint.

The poems, because they were written under such duress, have a spontaneity about them, a 'live' feel, and were actually published on the pages of the Guardian to be read as news, as well as poetry.

This was a groundbreaking project and lifted Harrison to new heights. Known for his gritty, uncomfortable poems, he delves into areas of life normally taboo for most poets, using plain sometimes coarse language to reflect his authentic working-class background.

'The Bright Lights of Sarajevo' is written in rhyming couplets, a specialty of the poet, who often uses rhyme and conventional metre regularly in order to convey social themes and public issues to as many people as possible.

The themes of the poem:

  • War and its effect on society.
  • Issues around ethnicity.
  • Love in a time of conflict.

Harrison juxtaposes life and death, war and peace, and focuses in on an intimate sharing of love, just for one evening, the iambic rhythms echoing the heartbeats of two young lovers.

'This is one of Harrison's great strengths as a poet aiming to link the public and private, his ability to respond while the events are not just fresh in our minds but often still on the front pages of the newspapers.'

Peter Robinson. University of Hull, UK, Sept 1998.

This poem gives the reader insights into the strange brutality of war, the vivid images coming to life as the narrative follows a couple on the path of romance, perhaps hoping for an uneasy peace to break out.

Sarajevo is now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Meanings of Words in the Poem

  • Line 3, prams: short for perambulators, wheeled baby carriages (strollers in USA).
  • Line 16, hjleb/hleb: Serbian for bread.
  • Line 16, kruh: Croatian for bread.
  • Line 40, Pleiades: star cluster in constellation of Taurus, also known as Seven Sisters and easily visible to naked eye in dark sky.
  • Line 45, curfew: an official ruling where people have to be home by a certain time or risk arrest
  • Line 46, AID flour-sacks: International aid food given by countries helping out the war-stricken people.

'The Bright Lights of Sarajevo'

After the hours that Sarajevans pass

Queuing with empty canisters of gas

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to get the refills they wheel home in prams,

or queuing for the precious meagre grams

of bread they’re rationed to each day,

and often dodging snipers on the way,

or struggling up sometimes eleven flights

of stairs with water, then you’d think the nights

of Sarajevo would be totally devoid

of people walking streets Serb shells destroyed,

but tonight in Sarajevo that’s just not the case–

The young go walking at a strollers pace,

black shapes impossible to mark

as Muslim, Serb or Croat in such dark,

in unlit streets you can’t distinguish who

calls bread hjleb or hleb or calls it kruh,

All takes the evening air with a strollers stride,

no torches guide them, but they don’t collide

except as one of the flirtatious ploys

when a girl’s dark shape is fancied by a boy’s.

Then the tender radar of the tone of voice

shows by its signals she approves his choice.

Then match or lighter to a cigarette

to check in her eyes if he’s made progress yet.

And I see a pair who’ve certainly progressed

beyond the tone of voice and match-lit flare test

and he’s about, I think, to take her hand

and lead her away from where they stand

on two shells scars, where, in 1992

Serb mortars massacred the breadshop queue

and blood-dunked crusts of shredded bread

lay on this pavement with the broken dead.

And at their feet in holes made by the mortar

that caused the massacre, now full of water

from the rain that’s poured down half the day,

though now even the smallest clouds have cleared away,

leaving the Sarajevo star-filled evening sky

ideally bright and clear for the bombers eye,

in those two rain-full shell-holes the boy sees

fragments of the splintered Pleiades,

sprinkled on those death-deep, death-dark wells

splashed on the pavement by Serb mortar shells.

The dark boy-shape leads dark-girl shape away

to share one coffee in a candlelit café

until the curfew, and he holds her hand

behind AID flour-sacks refilled with sand.

Poem Analysis

Lines 1–24

The speaker immediately takes the reader into the city of Sarajevo where the Sarajevans are queuing for gas and bread. They have empty canisters which once full they'll wheel back home. They queue for meagre grams of bread.

Note the language already: empty, meagre, rationed. These are people under duress, there's not enough of the basics to go around.

Not only that, they're in danger of being shot by snipers (solitary gunmen who position themselves in advantageous spots so that they can kill indiscriminately, often with a single bullet).

Again, the language reflects their situation. They're dodging, struggling—living life on the edge.

With all this going on in the day, the narrator suggests that at night the bombarded streets will be bare. But no. On this particular night (we're not given a day of the week)—it could be any day presumably—there are young people out at a strollers pace.

So despite the turmoil, the daily grind of life, the possibility of a random bullet killing you, some do brave the city streets in the dark. The speaker implies that because there's no light, Serbian snipers can't distinguish who is who.

Mesa Selimovic Boulevard, the main street in Sarajevo, was known as Sniper's Alley. Many people lost their lives going about their business in this area of the city.

Naturally, it's not possible to tell races apart in the dark, or know who is speaking what language, specifically the word for bread, that most basic of foods, which keeps us all alive.

Young people are out on the streets, boys and girls, and it is this fact that catches the eye of the speaker. The boys use lighters and matches to light cigarettes and also to check on the girls, to see if they find one another attractive?

Lines 25–46

For the first time in the poem, the first-person speaker is revealed. This is good timing, because a young couple has just hit it off and are hand in hand, close to shell scars on the pavement.

These are bomb holes basically, where Serbian bombs dropped in 1992 (three years ago according to the date of the poem, 1995) when Serbian troops were surrounding the city, bombing it from their positions in the mountains.

One particular bombing brought devastation and death to people innocently queuing for bread. Now young lovers are meeting. The rain has stopped, the craters are filling with water and in one a reflection of the Pleiades can be seen, the starry sky caught momentarily in such an awful man-made creation. Poignant.

The language is primitive towards the end....dark boy-shape....dark girl-shape...which gives the impression of a shadow puppet drama; a slightly unreal feel.

They're together, afforded moments of intimacy by the darkness, near the candlelit cafe, behind protective sandbags, once flour-sacks, sent in from international aid.

They'll sit and enjoy each other's company until curfew time, when everyone has to be home, and the city is left to heal its wounds.

What Is the Tone of 'The Bright Lights of Sarajevo'?

The overall tone of this poem is conversational and serious. It is a kind of reportage, observation from the front-line of war as city dwellers and young lovers in particular try to rescue love from the ruins and carnage.

Harrison wanted spontaneity and accuracy in his 'reporting' and certainly paints a true picture of life at night for young people. Life carries on, despite the blood and death; love is still in the air for all the desperation and grim mechanics of war and strife.

Literary and Poetic Devices

Full rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter are the hallmarks of Harrison's 'The Bright Lights of Sarajevo.'

A single stanza of 46 lines (23 couplets), the reader is taken onto the streets of this war-torn city at night and given insights into the life of the young people having to cope with bullets and bombs. Having to find love and romance.


When two or more words close together in a line start with the same consonant, bringing various phonetics into play, altering the texture of the language. For example:

streets Serb shells....clouds have cleared....death-deep, death-dark....candlelit cafe....he holds her hand.....


When two or more words close together in a line have similar-sounding vowels. For example:

and blood-dunked crusts of shredded bread


A pause in a line, often midway, by punctuation, allowing the reader a breath. For example:

not torches guide them, but they don't collide


When a line runs on into the next without punctuation, increasing momentum and maintaining sense. There are many lines enjambed in this poem. For example, the first two lines here:

And at their feet in holes caused by the mortar

that caused the massacre, now full of water

from the rain that's poured down half the day,


When one thing becomes another, and comparison is possible, or meaning enhanced. For example, here the tone becomes a radar:

Then the tender radar of the tone of voice

shows by its signals she approves his choice.

'The Bright Lights of Sarajevo': Metre (Meter in American English)

Forty-six lines made up of rhyming couplets and all of them between 8 and 12 syllables, forming either:

Iambic tetrameter (three of these in lines, 5, 13 and 31). Here's line 5:

  • of bread / they're rat / ioned to / each day

Four iambic feet, regular stress on second syllable.

Iambic pentameter

Line 39:

  • in those / two rain- / full shell- / holes the / boy sees

Here the first three feet are iambic (daDUM daDUM daDUM) but note the trochee foot (DUMda) and the spondee (DADUM), going against the regular beat, adding a bit of a disrupted climax.

Iambic Hexameters

Longer lines with 12 syllables and six feet (lines 9, 11, 36, 37 and 44). Here's line 36:

  • though now / even / the small / est clouds / have cleared / away

Six feet, five of them iambic. Only the second foot (a trochee, or inverted iamb) goes against this regular beat.

Certain lines have 11 syllables (10 lines.....pentameters basically with an extra syllable) and others have nine (five lines....tetrameters with an extra syllable).

Here's an example of an 11-syllable line (38):

  • ideal / ly bright / and clear / for the bom / bers eye

All iambic feet except for the fourth which an anapaest (dadaDUM) giving a rising feel.

And line 46, the last, has nine syllables:

  • behind / AID flour- / sacks re / filled with sand.

Note the spondee and trochee, breaking the iambic beat. That final foot can be broken down into a trochee and an extra stressed beat or it becomes a rare amphimacer (DUMdaDUM).


Norton Anthology of Poetry, Norton, 2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2020 Andrew Spacey

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