The Polish author and poet Czeslaw Milosz (born 1911), winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, explored in his work both the rebirth of Christian belief and the corruption of thought by ideology.
Czeslaw Milosz is one of the most important writers and poets to have emerged in Poland since World War II. Terence De Pres stated that Milosz' poetry deals "with the central issues of our time: the impact of history upon being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world." He was born on June 30, 1911 in Szetejnie, Lithuania then in Tsarist Russia, to Polish-Lithuanian parents. His father, Alexander, was a road engineer and was recruited by the Tsar's army during World War I. Young Milosz and his mother traveled with Alexander on the dangerous bridge-building expeditions to which he was dispatched near Russian battle zones.
His family returned to Lithuania in 1918, and Milosz began a strict formal education in his hometown of Wilno, the capital of Polish Lithuania. In his early 20s, he published his first volume of poems, A Poem on Frozen Time. In 1934, he graduated from the King Stefan Batory University, and in 1936 his second volume of poetry appeared. He earned a scholarship to study at the Alliance Française in Paris, where he also met up with his distant cousin, Oscar Milosz, a French poet who became his mentor.
Milosz returned to Poland to work for the Polish State Broadcasting Company up to the outbreak of World War II. He stayed in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, where he joined the underground resistance movement. Milosz was inclined toward socialism, and had an uneasy relationship with the Communist government that came to power in Poland in 1946. Milosz had an anthology of anti-Nazi poetry, The Invincible Song published by underground presses in Warsaw, where he also wrote "The World (A Naive Poem)" and the cycle Voices of Poor People. When Warsaw was destroyed, he lived for a bit outside of Cracow, whose state publishing house brought out his collected poems in a volume called Rescue.
At the end of World War II, Milosz worked as a cultural attaché for the Polish communist government, serving in New York and Washington. He left his position with the Polish Foreign Service in 1951 and sought (and received) political asylum in France. Milosz spent ten years in France, and he found himself having difficulty with the strongly pro-socialist and communist intellectual community. He penned two novels during his time in Paris, Seizure of Power and The Issa Valley. His most famous book, The Captive Mind (1953) was a bitter attack on the manner in which the Communist Party in Poland progressively destroyed the independence of the Polish intelligentsia.
He continued to speak out against the Polish intellectuals, comparing them to Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, bustling about in a shack poised on a cliff. Too often his contemporaries would end up agreeing with their new masters, while secretly believing that they could in some way maintain at the same time an area of their own intellectual autonomy. This phenomenon he termed "Ketman" and he saw the downfall of a free intelligentsia in Poland. In a novel entitled The Usurpers (1955) that graphically described the communist seizure of power, he wrote of a rather pathetic classical scholar, Professor Gill, who had been deprived of a chair at the university. Gill was busy translating Thucydides for a small edition for the state publishing house as a means, he hoped, of keeping some idea of classical culture alive.
Milosz' early writing was strongly shaped by the culture of his adopted city, Wilno, which was a major center of both Catholic and Jewish learning before 1939. Milosz considered himself to be both a poet and an intellectual. His poetry at this time reflected a mood of youthful romanticism as well as recognition that kingdoms rise and fall. As his poem "Hymn" put it in 1935, "Forms come and go, what seems invincible crumbles." This world of Milosz' youth did, indeed, crumble after the German invasion. He saw Warsaw destroyed by the Germans in 1944 after the failure of Stalin's advancing armies to rescue the Polish partisans. Milosz came increasingly to distrust Marxist ideology and its ideal of a classless millennium.
Milosz saw many of his intellectual contemporaries compromising their ideals in the interest of naked power politics. He came to treat the intellectual generally with suspicion, writing in Native Realm (1968) that he was "not sure that all intellectual talents are not like orchids, which nourish themselves on the rotten wood of decaying trees." With such strong opinions, Milosz found his poetry banned in Poland, but was published in Paris by the Instytut Literacki.
Milosz ultimately felt that the only way to maintain his own intellectual autonomy, claiming to be "imprisoned as I am in my I," was an exile in the West. He regretted that works like The Captive Mind came to be used as Cold War propaganda and hoped that Eastern Europe would be able to regenerate its culture once the wave of communism was passed. He remembered his cousin, Oscar, castigating Eastern Europeans for simply imitating other "centres of culture" instead of creating one themselves. It was a memory he did not forget.
Milosz continued his exile even further West. At age 50, he began a new career as a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961 (some sources say 1960). He was initially an unknown member of a small department; but eventually became popular for his courses on Dostoyevsky, and known to those outside the university as a translator of the poems of Zbigniew Herbert. In the poetry he wrote after going into exile, Milosz consciously sought to build on his earlier romanticism by stressing the true meaning of words that had become corrupted by political ideology. "Yes I would like to be a poet of the five senses," he wrote in In Milan (1955). "That's why I don't allow myself to become one./Yes, thought has less weight than the word lemon/That's why in my words I do not reach for fruit." At the same time identification with nature allowed him to maintain an identity even in exile. As the poem in Throughout Our Lands, written in 1961 while at Berkeley, put it,Wherever you are, you touch the bark of trees testing its roughness different yet familiar, grateful for a rising and a setting sun Wherever you are, you could never be an alien.
By the 1970s, Milosz' poetry and fiction was increasingly attracting the attention of Western critics. In 1976, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. In 1978, he published Bells in Winter, for which he received the Neustadt International Literature Prize. In 1980, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. By this time, many of his poems had become infused with a more orthodox and settled Christianity. There was also a growing sadness and premonition of oncoming death, especially after the death of his wife Janina in 1986. This was frequently a difficult and obscure poetry that was burdened by a sense of the oncoming collapse of civilization. Milosz' poetry, though, did not contain any premonition of the collapse of the Eastern European Communist régimes.
After winning the Nobel Prize, Milosz published many volumes of prose and poetry. His prose collections include Visions from San Francisco Bay, Beginning With My Streets, The Land of Ulro, and his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures from Harvard, The Witness of Poetry. In 1988, his Collected Poems were published, followed most recently by another collection entitled Provinces.
Milosz chronicled his life in 1988. This diary became the book A Year of the Hunter, published in 1994. A review in the Boston Book Review called it "an elegiac, autumnal work—a reassessment of a long and complicated career, marriage and exile." After returning to Lithuania in the spring of 1989, Milosz was flooded with sentiment about is childhood in the Issa River Valley. In this collection, Milosz explores "the nature of imagination, human experience, good and evil—and celebrates the wonders of life on earth," an abstract from Ecco press noted. David Biespiel's review of the collection notes that Milosz, as always, speaks to his readers "with a passionate mixture of lament, rage, joy, resignation, and officium landis, despite his self-questioning: "Did I fulfill what I had to, here, on earth?" Despite being afflicted with asthma and declining health, Milosz managed to also release another volume of poetry in 1995, Facing the River. In 1997, his correspondence with poet and monk Thomas Merton was published, a speculative epistolary history of their inner worlds.
Milosz' confrontation with both a revival of Christian belief (he feels chosen by God, he told Biespiel, to transform what he's experienced into art) and the corruption of thought by ideology has made him a figure of our time. He resides in the Berkeley hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay, with his wife, Carol, and a cat named Tiny.
Further Reading on Czeslaw Milosz
Additional information on Czeslaw Milosz and his work can be found in Adam Czernjawski (editor), The Burning Forest: Modern Polish Poetry (Newcastle Upon Tyne: 1988); Edward Mozejko (editor), Between Anxiety and Hope: The Poetry and Writing of Czeslaw Milosz (Edmonton: 1988); and Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems, 1931-1987 (1988) and Native Realm (1989).Online sources include "The Art of Poetry: Czeslaw Milosz," http://www.voyagerco.com/PR/winter94/milosz2html; "Czeslaw Milosz," http://www.poetry.books.com/nmilosz.htm; "Hungry Mind Review: Facing The River," http://www.bookwire.com/HMR/Poetry/read.Review$1721; "Facing the River: New Poems," http://www.wwnorton.com/ecco/884547.htm; "Boston Book Review: A Year of the Hunter," http://www.bookwire.com/BBR/Life-&-Letters/read.Review$1325; and "Czleslaw Milosz (1911 Szetejinie, Lithuania)," http://sunsite.unc.edu/dukki/poetry/milosz/mil-bio. Periodical references include America (February 1, 1997); Library Journal (December 1996); New York Review of Books (August 13, 1992; March 23, 1995); and Poetry (February 1997).