Czeslaw Milosz

Leading poet of his generation who in 1980 won the Nobel Prize for Literature
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A major poet, and probably one of the most important of the 20th century, Czeslaw Milosz in 1980 won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was the first such award to a Polish writer since Wladyslaw Reymont received it in 1924 and it was, in the opinion of many critics, a well-deserved one, for Milosz not only excelled in the field of poetry but created much of value in other genres.

Czeslaw Milosz, poet, novelist, literary critic and translator: born Szetejnie, Russian Empire 30 June 1911; cultural attaché in Washington, DC 1945-49, in Paris 1949-50; Visiting Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley 1960-61, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures 1961-78 (Emeritus); Nobel Prize for Literature 1980; married 1944 Janina Dluska (died 1986), 1992 Carol Thigpen (died 2002); died Krakow, Poland 14 August 2004.

A major poet, and probably one of the most important of the 20th century, Czeslaw Milosz in 1980 won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was the first such award to a Polish writer since Wladyslaw Reymont received it in 1924 and it was, in the opinion of many critics, a well-deserved one, for Milosz not only excelled in the field of poetry but created much of value in other genres.

He was born in Szetejnie (now in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire) to a noble Polish family, his father a civil engineer. The young Milosz studied in Wilno (now Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital), by then under Polish rule. Though he studied Law from 1929, graduating in 1934 from the Stefan Batory University, his poems were printed from 1930, first in student publications and later in the national press, leading up to a collection, Poemat o czasie zastyglym ( Poem on Time Frozen), published in 1933.

Milosz later disowned most of the poems of this collection which were still heavily informed by social criticism of a Marxist kind. In Wilno he was a founding member of the literary group Zagary ("Sails") but soon he was regarded by critics as a neo-symbolist and a representative of the so-called "Second Avant-Garde".

After a year of studies in Paris at the Alliance Française, made possible by the help of his uncle, the symbolist poet Oscar Lubicz-Milosz, Milosz became a programme editor for Polish Radio, in the Wilno branch, from where he moved to Warsaw in 1937. After the German attack on Poland he was first evacuated to Romania, but made his way back to Wilno and, after the Soviet annexation of Lithuania, to Warsaw.

This was an important time in Milosz's life, for he married Janina Dluska during the war and spent the war years in Warsaw living with her family. Defying German occupation, under which both education and publishing in Polish were suppressed, Milosz edited an anthology of poetry under the pseudonym Ks.J. Robak for the underground press Oficyna Polska; this collection, Piesn niepodlegla, was republished as Invincible Song in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1981.

Milosz's isolation during the war years led to introspection and a rediscovery of the "simple values" of life and culture, and the vaguely menacing symbolism, or "catastrophism", of the pre-war Milosz slowly gave way to a more mature style which tried to balance historical awareness against aesthetic priorities. The result was the collection Ocalenie ("Deliverance", 1945) which confirmed Milosz's place as a leading poet of his generation.

In the poem "Dedication", Milosz posed what appeared to be the most painful dilemma of people who survived the Second World War and the Holocaust: "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies . . . " In Ocalenie, the poet's moral responsibility was emphasised: no one who survived the Warsaw Uprising and the near-total destruction of the Polish capital on Hitler's orders could remain indifferent to national and individual suffering.

After the war, Milosz lived in Krakow for a short time, but soon afterwards joined the new diplomatic service, becoming first cultural attaché in Washington, DC (1945-49) and then in Paris. Although by 1948 the Communists had established complete hegemony in Poland, Milosz hesitated to break his ties with the country which he represented abroad; eventually in 1951, by which time socialist realism was forced upon Polish writers as the only acceptable mode of writing, he defected. His reasons for the defection were put forward in the excellent, if rather pessimistic, account of intellectual submission to Communism entitled Zniewolony umysl ( The Captive Mind, 1953).

Milosz's first decade in exile was fraught with economic hardship; although Kultura, the best Polish émigré monthly, published in Maisons-Laffitte, gave him support and published his writings from the outset, French leftist public opinion, still in awe of the Soviet Union, ostracised him.

It was to eke out a living that he took to the writing of novels: of the two written in the 1950s Dolina Issy (1955, translated in 1981 as The Issa Valley), based on Milosz's memories of childhood, is the better one, although Zdobycie wladzy ( The Seizure of Power, 1953) was awarded the Prix Littéraire Européen. During the same period Instytut Literacki, the publishing house of Kultura, became Milosz's regular publishers; in 1959 they brought out Rodzinna Europa ( Native Realm), a thoughtful part-autobiographical essay on the young's Milosz's confrontation with Western Europe.

During these years Milosz's poetry grew both in size and quality. Two long narrative poems, " Traktat moralny" ("Moral Treatise") and " Traktat poetycki" ("Treatise on Poetry"), tackled philosophical and cultural issues and the collection Swiatlo dzienne ("Daylight", 1953) showed signs of his earlier catastrophism cooling into a new compassionate-classicist style. " Który skrzywdziles . . ." ("You who wronged . . .") is a simple poem written in this manner; its significance became clear years later when it was chosen for the memorial in Gdansk commemorating the working-class victims of the 1969 Baltic riots.

Another poem with clear classical references is "Antigone" - a dialogue between Antigone and Ismene written in 1949 but published only after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Dedicated to the memory of the Hungarian "workers, students and soldiers" this dialogue foresees the victory of the disrespected, "unburied" dead over Creon, who tries to build "his government upon sheer power of the sword".

In 1960 Milosz was invited to Berkeley to teach Polish literature at the University of California and a year later he was given tenure; until 1978 he taught there as Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures. His classes were popular because of his informal, humorous style - when talking about modern Polish writers Milosz often made use of his personal experiences.

A result of the Berkeley classes was The History of Polish Literature (1969) in which, demonstrating great erudition, Milosz made sound critical evaluations, many of them valid to this day. This was not his first excursion into the field of literary history: his earlier book on Stanislaw Brzozowski, an enigmatic, though influential figure of the early 20th century, entitled Czlowiek wsród skorpionów ("Man Amongst Scorpions", 1962) had already established him as a sensitive analyst of other people's texts.

Some years later, in Ziemia Ulro ( The Land of Ulro, 1977), Milosz discussed issues fundamental not only for his poetry but for the future of mankind. The cold rationalism of the Enlightenment and "the revolt of the masses" produced in the 20th century monstrous states and atrocities. A corrective to these was provided by the visions of Swedenborg, Blake and Goethe, and, last but not least, of Oscar Lubicz-Milosz; here, following in their footsteps Czeslaw Milosz makes a plea for a better world where each man's individuality is respected and will not be sacrificed for an unattainable Utopia of perfect equality and happiness.

In 1970 Milosz became an American citizen and during the Seventies he was discovered by English-speaking readers and critics alike. In 1973 his Selected Poems was published with an introduction by Kenneth Rexroth and in 1978 when, on the commendation of Joseph Brodsky, Milosz won his first important international award, the Neustadt/World Literature Today Prize, the American quarterly World Literature Today devoted a special issue to his work.

This marked, in a sense, a breakthrough in Milosz's recognition in the West which, after the Nobel Prize in 1980, culminated in 1987 with the publication of his Collected Poems (1931-1987) in the Penguin International Poets series. This collection was translated by various hands, including Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky and Renata Gorczynska, with the help of the author.

In the view of the American critics Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, Milosz's most important poetic innovation from the Seventies on "has been a series of attempts to create his own version of polyphony". This was demonstrated in the over 60-page-long poem Gdzie slonce wschodzi i kedy zapada, translated into English as From the Rising of the Sun (1974), where Milosz assembled images of the district of his childhood, Lithuanian historical buildings and figures and theological problems such as Manicheism and the Last Judgement. Brodsky called this poem, which has prose parts as well as long lyrical passages and makes use of several languages, including Polish and Lithuanian, "perhaps the magnum opus" of Milosz. Brodsky regarded Milosz as "one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest".

From the Rising of the Sun was followed by several new collections, but perhaps the crowning achievement of Milosz the poet-philosopher is his " Traktat teologiczny" ("Treatise on Theology"), a poem in 23 parts first published in the journal Tygodnik Powszechny and then in book form in Druga przestrzen ( A Second Space, 2003). In this brilliant cycle of poems, written when he was 90, Czeslaw Milosz uses free verse to tackle certain fundamental issues of faith and metaphysics as the existence of evil, God's omnipotence and the question of resurrection.

Milosz also played a leading part in the introduction of other Polish poets to Western readers. His anthology Postwar Polish Poetry (1965) directed attention to younger poets such as Zbigniew Herbert with whom in later years Milosz quarrelled but whose recognition outside Poland was greatly helped by the older poet. He also translated into Polish Simone Weil, Daniel Bell and Jacques Maritain.

After the change of regime in Poland, Milosz was commuting for a while between Berkeley and Krakow, but in the early 1990s moved back to Krakow, which reminded him of the Wilno of his youth. After the death in 1986 of his first wife, whom he mourned in a moving poem ("On Parting with My Wife, Janina"), Milosz married again - his second wife Carol Thigpen was a true companion whose care warmed Milosz's twilight years.

Of the vast critical literature on Milosz, Donald Davie's book ( Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric, 1986) and L. Nathan and A. Quinn's The Poet's Work (1991), as well as Aleksander Fiut's Between Anxiety and Hope (1988), are the most accessible. Milosz was also interviewed for BBC Radio 3 by Clive Wilmer in 1989, the text of which is reproduced in Wilmer's Poets Talking (1994).

George Gomori



Comments