Biography: Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz was born on 30 June 1911 in his family's former manorial village of Szetejnie, on the banks of the Niewiaza River, in what was then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. His family was of the Polish-speaking gentry, a class that was politically and economically ruined by the time of Milosz's birth, but whose grand heritage nonetheless persisted in collective memory. Milosz counts himself among the last of the Polish Lithuanians, recalling, "We were something else, Lithuanians, but not in the accepted twentieth-century sense, which says that to be a Lithuanian you have to speak Lithuanian" (Conversations With Czeslaw Milosz, 4). Milosz's father, Alexander Milosz, was a highway engineer for the tsar's army from 1914 to 1918; thus, the family, including his mother, Weronika Milosz née Kunat, and his younger brother, Andrzej, traveled throughout Russia and Siberia when Milosz was a child. They were in the Russian town of Rzhev, on the Volga River, at the outbreak of the 1917 October Revolution. After the revolution, the young Milosz spent several of his formative years with his grandparents in the village of his birth. The chaos of his early wanderings through war-torn Russia, countered by the peace he remembers in the pastoral setting of a Lithuanian river valley, would later become a frequent subject of his poetry and prose.

Milosz attended Zygmunt August High School in Wilno (today, Vilnius) from 1921 to 1929 and then entered Stefan Batory University, also in Wilno, where he took a degree in law in 1934. Milosz published his first poems in the university's literary journal in 1930. In 1931 he co-founded "Zagary," a literary circle about which Milosz wrote in his 1969 History of Polish Literature:

"[T]heir group best exemplified all the contradictory strivings that were propelling the young generation beyond accepted artistic forms. Because of their dark visions in which the political was translated into the cosmic by means of a new kind of symbolism, they were soon recognized as the instigators of a 'school of catastrophists.'"

Milosz traveled to Paris for the first time in the summer of 1931, and there he met his relative Oscar Milosz, the French Lithuanian metaphysical poet who would be very important in the development of Milosz's own metaphysics. In 1933 Milosz published his first volume of poetry, Poem in Frozen Time. In 1934 he received an award for his poetry from the Union of Polish Writers and began a year of study in Paris, where he continued his conversations with Oscar Milosz and attended lectures on Thomism, the study of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, who attempted to resolve the conflict between rational knowledge and religious faith.

Upon returning to Wilno in December 1935, Milosz took a job at Polish Radio. He published Three Winters in 1936. In 1937 he was transferred to Warsaw, and in 1939, during the first days of the Second World War, he was sent to the front as a radio operator. In January 1940 he returned to Wilno and was caught there when Soviet tanks entered the city. In July he escaped across Soviet lines into Poland, a dangerous journey through both Soviet- and Nazi-occupied territories. This was the last time for over forty years that he would see his native Lithuania. Milosz spent the years 1940-44 in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. While there, he married Janina Dluska, with whom he would have two sons: Antoni, born in 1947, and Piotr, born in 1951. He continued to write, editing a volume of anti-Nazi poetry, Invincible Song, and publishing his third volume of verse, Poems, under the name Jan Syruc, a pseudonym taken, in a bow to his Lithuanian origins, from his maternal grandmother's maiden name. In 1943 Milosz wrote the long poem The World: A Naive Poem, which marked a turning point in his oeuvre, away from the catastrophism of his youth and, in the face of predicted catastrophe come true, toward a more transcendent desire to express his philosophical faith in the future.

After the failure of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, Milosz and his wife escaped to the environs of Krakow. Milosz's mother died in 1945 near Gdansk during a typhus epidemic. (His father died later, in 1959.) Later that year, Milosz published his first postwar collection, Rescue. Rather than emigrate and "become someone outside [his] true estate--Polish poetry" (A Year of the Hunter, 124), Milosz became a diplomatic attach‚ for the new government of the People's Republic of Poland. From 1946 to 1950 he worked in New York and Washington. In 1950 he was transferred to Paris, but his family remained in the United States, as it was clear that Milosz was slowly being drawn into a trap by Polish leaders who were becoming less indulgent of his public ambivalence toward Communism. In December 1950 he returned, on a holiday, to Warsaw, where the Polish authorities took away his passport, effectively imprisoning him in Communist Poland. In January 1951, however, Milosz was inexplicably allowed to return to work in Paris, where on 1 February he sought political asylum, thus beginning his official life in exile.

From 1951 to 1953 Milosz lived in Maisons-Lafitte at the Polish émigré publishing house Kultura. Impoverished, separated from his family, depressed that his few friends could not read his poetry in Polish, and vilified by most French intellectuals (who embraced Communism and Stalin as the hope for Europe's future), Milosz wrote The Captive Mind (1953) to save himself from succumbing to despair. In the book's introduction, Milosz describes its subject as "the vulnerability of the twentieth-century mind to seduction by sociopolitical doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetical future." It is ironic that The Captive Mind is perhaps his most famous work in the West, for, as Milosz said in an interview in 1983: "To write books on historical tragedies is not my calling. Political action, or any sort of action, was never my calling" (Conversations With Czeslaw Milosz, 159). Nevertheless, the decade Milosz spent in France is arguably and understandably his most politically vocal period.

In 1952 Milosz published the first of his two novels, The Seizure of Power, a fictional account of events in Poland from 1939 to 1950, for which he won the 1953 Prix Litt‚raire Europ‚en. The prize gave him the recognition and funds needed to bring his family to France in 1953, where they lived until 1960. Milosz's first volume of poetry as an émigré, The Light of Day, was published by the Instytut Literacki in 1953. He published his second novel, The Issa Valley, in 1955. A semi-autobiographical account of his boyhood in Lithuania, it was written, Milosz says, as a kind of therapy. In 1957 he published Treatise on Poetry and won Kultura's annual literary prize. The publication of Milosz's autobiography, Native Realm, in 1958 made clear his method of depicting reality in both poetry and prose: in an effort to do away with the limitations of "I," Milosz looks at himself as a sociological object, against the backdrop of collective history.

In 1960 Milosz accepted a position as a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. He became a full professor there in 1961, and for the next twenty years combined his writing with teaching courses on subjects ranging from Dostoevsky to Manicheanism. In 1968 Native Realm became available in English translation. Then, in 1973, the Seabury Press in New York published the first volume of Milosz's poetry in English, Selected Poems. This publication sparked the remarkably late beginning of Milosz's renown in the English-speaking world as a poet and not just a political essayist. Milosz's translations of Polish poetry into English were further recognized in 1974, when he received the Polish P.E.N. Club's prize. In 1977 Milosz published The Land of Ulro, as well as a collection of English translations of essays culled from his Polish volumes and given the title Emperor of Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision. In 1978 Milosz received the Neustadt International Literary Prize, and the University of California presented him with the Berkeley citation for his literary and academic merits. In the same year, his second volume of poetry in English, Bells in Winter, was published by the Ecco Press. Around this time Milosz began work on translations of the Bible--including the Book of Psalms, the Book of Job, the Gospel of Mark, the Apocalypse, and the Book of Wisdom (Proverbs)--from Hebrew and Greek into Polish. In 1980 Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In June of 1981, Milosz returned to Poland for the first time since his exile in 1951. Soon after his return, the Polish presses Wydawnictwo Literackie and Czytelnik began to publish the first volumes of Milosz's work available in Poland since his writings were banned in the 1950s, making it possible for Poles--many of whom had never heard of Milosz before the Nobel Prize--to read their newly crowned national bard. While in Poland, Milosz met with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and was awarded an honorary doctorate at Catholic University in Lublin. With the declaration of martial law in December 1981, however, most of Milosz's work was again banned by the government, although some remained available, as previously, in samizdat publications.

Milosz held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard University for the academic year 1981-82 and published his lectures from that year in The Witness of Poetry (1983). In 1984 a new volume of his translated poems was made available in a bilingual edition, The Separate Notebooks. The translation of Unattainable Earth, Milosz's unique collection of poetry (his own and others'), letters, and historical excerpts important to his creative processes for the years 1981-84, became available in 1986. The collection attempts to fulfill the desire Milosz expressed in the 1968 poem "Ars poetica?": "I have always aspired to a more spacious form / that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose." His Collected Poems, 1931-1987 was published in English in 1988 and includes translations by the poets Robert Hass, Leonard Nathan, and Robert Pinsky, among others. Milosz's wife, Janka, died on 17 April 1986 after a ten-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

* * * *

The poems presented here are a part of the collection Provinces, published in English in 1991. The poems in Provinces reflect Milosz's constant effort to achieve a balance between the sensual life of man (as in "In Common") and his responsibility to examine philosophical questions of faith and morality (as in "At Yale" and "Meditation"). At the same time, the poet fulfills his self-ascribed duty to preserve the memory of those who no longer have the dubious privilege of struggling with such questions (as in "Far Away" and "A Photograph").

The first poem in English in this archive, "Conversation With Jeanne," refers to Milosz's longtime friend Jeanne Hersch, a philosopher and professor at the University of Geneva who, in the poem, represents the teachings of Karl Jaspers, her former teacher. The lush tropical beauty of Guadeloupe, where the imagined conversation takes place, signifies for Milosz the "things of this world, which exist and, for that reason, delight us." The persona wants to immerse himself in the world, to abandon his reason and "disappear in the immense." This desire for freedom from rational thought (a freedom possible only in death, as described in the poem "Good Night") is unconvincing on many levels, however, and is seemingly contradicted by the linking of this poem with the next, "Poem for the End of the Century." In the second poem, the persona describes his inability to stop himself from searching for a reason for the suffering of man, even at the end of the twentieth century, "when everything was fine / And the notion of sin had vanished." The speaker is incapable of forgetting the horrors he witnessed at the beginning of the century and cannot comprehend those, such as the man in the first poem, who forget so easily:

Alas, my memory
Does not want to leave me
And in it, live beings
Each with its own pain,
Each with its own dying,
Its own trepidation.

Why then, innocence
On paradisal beaches,
An impeccable sky
Over the church of hygiene?
Is it because that
Was long ago?

In linking "Conversation With Jeanne" and "Poem for the End of the Century" under the heading "Two Poems," Milosz acknowledges his tendency toward dualism and demonstrates his striving toward a poetic representation of such contradictions that gives equal weight to both sides of every argument, creating a syzygy of opposites. As Milosz explains in A Year of the Hunter (1994), a diary kept from 1987 to 1988:

Critics have sought an answer to the question: what is the source of all those contradictions in my poetry? In my prose, too, for that matter. I could enlighten them by referring to the several personalities who reside in me simultaneously, whom I have tried to suppress, generally without success. I didn't want to be so volatile, but what could I do? I hope that this diary... will be valued as one more attempt at demonstrating that I was conscious of the incompatibility of my various personalites.

Milosz has been most prolific in his twilight years, publishing several collections of essays, some of which are available in the English volume Beginning With My Streets, (1991). He has also written numerous critical works and a collection of poetry about his 1991 return to Lithuania, Facing the River (1995). His most recent books include a collection of occasional thoughts and verse, Roadside Dog (1997), for which he was awarded the 1998 Polish Nike Literary Prize; Robert Haas's English translation of the volume was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, also in 1998. Milosz has also published two volumes of a memoir, Milosz's Alphabet (1997 and 1998), written in a distinctly Polish genre called abecadlo (an alphabetical arrangement of entries on people, places, and events from an individual's life).

With his second wife, Carol, Milosz divided his time between Krakow and Berkeley in his later years. Carol died in August of 2002. Milosz's last published poem, Orpheus and Eurydice, is a tribute to Carol. In it, Milosz revisits many familiar themes, such as the place of the individual in the face of history; the plight of modern, post-Fall man; and the impulse to save our loved ones from eternal death, to preserve them somehow, not just in memory, but in the world.

Milosz himself died on August 14, 2004. His burial sparked a nasty debate in Poland between conservative Catholics who believed Milosz guilty of heresy and his supporters who disagreed. Ultimately, Milosz was buried in the crypt at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel and St. Stanislaw on the Rock (Na Skalce) in Krakow, alongside many other famous Polish cultural figures, including Stanislaw Wyspianski. Thousands of people lined the streets of the city to pay their respects to the fallen poet.

The official Milosz website (in Polish) is

-- by Kim Jastremski

Works Cited

Ewa Czarnecka and Aleksander Fiut. Conversations With Czeslaw Milosz. Translated by Richard Lourie. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987).

Czeslaw Milosz. The Captive Mind. Translated by Jane Zielonko. (New York: Vintage Books, 1953).

---. The History of Polish Literature. 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

---. Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition. Translated by Catherine S. Leach. (New York: Doubleday, 1968).

---. Roadside Dog. Translated by Robert Haas. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

---. The Witness of Poetry: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1981@-1982. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

---. A Year of the Hunter. Translated by Madeline G. Levine. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).