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Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004)


Polish-American author, translator and critic, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Miłosz's poetry and essays are a mixture of autobiographical confessions dealing with the effects of exile, religious or metaphysical fragments, historical and literary analyses. Though acclaimed as a Catholic poet, Miłosz had also a strong pantheist element in his work.

'When Poland achieved independence in 1918 there were endless debates about a Polish Academy of Letters until finally it was called into existence, but not without some wild clashes. It established a Youth Prize, and when Stanislaw Pietak was awarded it in 1938, Boleslaw Micinski, who was in France at the time, wrote to his mother in the mock Russian he used when he wanted to be funny, "It vood hev bin bedder hed Milosz gut prize."' (in Miłosz's ABS's, 1997)

Czesław Miłosz was born in Szetejnie, a rural town in Lithuania, then under the domination of the Russian czarist government. Both of his parents, Aleksander, a civil engineer, and Weronika (née Kunat), descended from the native Lithuanian nobility, which had assumed a Polish identity. Between 1914 and 1918, Aleksander served in the Imperial Russian army, erecting bridges and fortifications behind the lines and traveling with his family throughout Russia.

In Native Realm (1959) Miłosz described his birth region as a land largely forgotten by history: "For many centuries, while kingdoms rose and fell along the shores of the Mediterranean and countless generations handed down their refined pleasures and vices, my native land was a virgin forest whose only visitors were the few Viking ships that landed on the coast." After WW I Miłosz's family settled in Wilno, where he had a strict Roman Catholic education. "In a Roman Catholic country," Miłosz wrote at an early stage of his career, "intellectual freedom always goes hand in hand with atheism." Later Miłosz accepted his religious background and began to study Hebrew in order to render the Old Testament into Polish.

Miłosz received his master of laws degree from the University of Wilno in 1934, and then spent a year in Paris. There he formed a close relationship with his distant uncle, Oscar Miłosz (1877-1939), who was a diplomat and has also made his name as a French poet. Miłosz's first collection of verse,  Poemat o czasie zastyglym, came out in 1933. It was followed three years later by Trzy zimy.

In 1936 he worked at a radio station in Wilno, but was dismissed the following year because of his leftist views. Miłosz then moved to Warsaw, where he was hired to work at Polish Radio. He soon became a leading figure of the Zagary group, whose catastrophism, belief in an upcoming cosmic disaster, reflected Spenglerian ideas of cultural life-cycles. Later he returned to the theme of the decline of European civilization in The Land of Ulro (1977). And the prophesied disaster came – first in 1939 when German invaded Poland and World War II broke out

The heated literary debates of the group were carried in Wilno and Warsaw periodicals. Miłosz condemned purely aesthetic trends in literature. He attacked on the formalism of the poetic avantgarde in the name of poetry that look at the world from a subjective point of view. Miłosz's early works also show traces of distaste for any form of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and ideological indoctrination. "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?" he asked.

During World War II Miłosz was active as a writer in the Polish Resistance movement under the pseudonym Jan Syruc. After escaping from Wilno and settling in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw he worked as a janitor in the university library. To support himself, he also turned to some black market trading. In 1942 brought out a translation of Jacques Maritain's Ą travers le désastre and an anti-Nazi anthology of poems, Piesn niepoldlegla (Invincible Song). For an underground theater he translated Shakespeare's As You Like It. Though Eliot's sarcasm in The Waste Land was alien to his vision, he translated for an underground publisher the work, filled with images of collapsing cities. In 1944 Miłosz married Janina Dluska, whom he had met while working for the radio; they had two sons. After suffering from Alzheimer's disease for ten years, she died in 1986. Miłosz's second wife was Carol Thigpen, a historian and former associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at Atlanta's Emory University. She died in 2002.

Ocalenie (1945), a collection of verse, impressed so the new Communist government that he was appointed junior diplomat as a non-party intellectual.Between 1946 and 1951 Miłosz was in the Polish diplomatic service in Washington D.C., where he wrote 'Traktat moralny', and in Paris. While in Warsaw on holiday in 1951, his passport is taken away. When the passport was returned, Miłosz returned to France and sought political asylum. In  Zniewolony umysl (tr. The Captive Mind, 1953), which appeared after Milosz left Poland, he revealed the problems of intellectuals living under Stalinism. He saw that there is some dark magnetic force in totalitarian ideology, to which intellectuals were not immune. Between the years 1951 and 1960 Miłosz lived in Paris. Because of his association with the Communist Polish government, he was denied a U.S. visa. During these years he published Traktat Poetycki (1957), one of his major works, in which Milosz argues that poetry is essential for every human community wanting to survive as a community. Dolina Issy (1955, The Issa Valley) was a novel dealing with the author's childhood in Lithuania. Zdobycie wladzy (1955), The Seizure of Power) was about life in Warsaw after a change in power. Miłosz also edited and translated into Polish a selected writings of Simone Weil.

"The exile of a poet, is today a simple function of a relatively recent discovery; that whoever wields power is also able to control language, and not only with the prohibition of censorship, but also by changing the meaning of words." (in Nobel Lecture)

Miłosz moved in 1960 to the United States, working there as a professor of Slavic languages and literature at University of California at Berkeley (1960-78). In 1970 he took U.S. citizenship. Though he continued to write poetry in Polish, he also published many works in English. "I belong to those whose thinking is very closely connected with their language," he once said in an interview. "For that reason, I remained, so to speak, protected by a cocoon of my language, which I acquired as a child." His new home country Miłosz viewed ironically: "What splendor! What poverty! What humanity! What inhumanity! What mutual good will! What individual isolation! What loyalty to the ideal! What hypocrisy! What a triumph of conscience! What perversity!" (in Miłosz's ABC's)

Miłosz is not easy to read – his essays are dense and reflect his search for the essence of man and the painful lessons of modern history. Repeatedly he has tried to find meaning behind fleeting moments of life. At the age of 25 he asked: "O my love, where are they, where are they going / The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. / I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder." And in another poem written over 70 years later, he confesses resignated to God: "Now You are closing down my five senses, slowly, / And I am an old man lying in darkness. / Delivered to that thing which has oppressed me / So that I always ran forward, composing poems." Miłosz believes in the redemptive power of art and treats it as a "moral discipline." Sartre's attack on Camus – he hesitated to criticize Stalinism when Camus did not separate Fascism and Communism – was something that he did not want to forget. Without any compromises, Miłosz has considered Russian Communism "a decidedly antihuman system." In Poland Miłosz's moral stand made him a voice of conscience during the Cold War period.

After his defection Miłosz's works were banned in Poland. In California Milosz's poetry became more introspective but he did not abandon his eschatological visions. Miłosz's other later writings include essays, autobiography, literary history, and translations from such authors as Alexander Wat and Anna Swirszczynska. When he returned to his native land shortly after he was honored with the Nobel Prize, he received a hero's welcome. He was given an honorary doctorate from Lublin Catholic University and in Gdansk he met with Lech Walesa and other leaders of the Solidarity movement. However, when martial law was declared in Poland by Prime Minister Jaruzelski, most of his work was again banned.

Miłosz settled in Kracow in 2000, where his 90th birthday was widely celebrated in 2001. In addition to the Nobel prize, he received European Literary Prize (1953), Kister Award (1967), Neustadt International Prize (1978), National Medal of Arts (1989). He was also appointed member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and American Institute of Arts and Letters. Miłosz's The History of Polish Literature (1969) is perhaps the best introduction to Polish literature in English. Milosz died at his home in Kracow on August 14, 2004. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said: "I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czeslaw Miłosz is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest." When a monument was erected in Gdansk to those who had died there, it bore a fragment of his poem 'Który skrzywdziles' (You Who Have Wronged).

For further reading: Poznawanie Milosza, ed. Jerzy Kwiatkowski (1985); Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric by D. Davie (1986); Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz by E. Czarnecka and A. Fiut (1987); The Poet's Work: An Introduction to Czeslaw Milosz by Arthur Quinn, Leonard Nathan (1991); Zniewolony umysl po latach by Andrej Walicki (1993); Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1997); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations by Czeslaw Milosz, Cynthia L. Haven (2006)

Selected works:

  • Poemat o czasie zastygłym, 1933
  • Trzy zimy, 1936
  • Wiersze, 1940
  • Ocalenie, 1945
  • Światło dzienne, 1953
  • Zniewolony umysł, 1953 - The Captive Mind (translated by Jane Zielonko, 1953; see also: Jerzy Andrzejewski)
  • Zdobycie władzy, 1955 - The Seizure of Power (translated by Celina Wieniewska, 1955) / The Usurpers (UK title, 1955)
  • Dolina Issy, 1955 - The Issa Valley (translated by Louis Iribarne, 1981)
  • Traktat poetycki, 1957 - A Treatise on Poetry (translated by the author and Robert Hass, 2001)
  • Kontynenty, 1958
  • Rodzinna Europa, 1959 - Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition (translated by Catherine S. Leach, 1968)
  • Człowiek wśród skorpionów, 1962
  • Król Popiel i inne wiersze, 1962
  • Człowiek wśród skorpionów, 1962
  • Gucio zaczarowany, 1965
  • Lied vom Weltende, 1967
  • Wiersze, 1967
  • Selected Poems, 1968 (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)
  • Selected Poems / Zbigniew Herbert, 1968 (translator)
  • Wiersze, 1969
  • The History of Polish Literature, 1969
  • Widzenia nad zatoką San Francisco, 1969 - Visions from San Francisco Bay (translated by Richard Lourie, 1982)
  • Miasto bez imienia, 1969
  • Prywatne obowiązki, 1972
  • Selected Poems, 1973 (introd. by Kenneth Rexroth)
  • Gdzie wschodzi słońce i kędy zapada, 1974
  • Utwory poetyckie, 1976
  • Mój wiek, 1977 (2 vols., ed. Lidia Ciolkoszowa)
  • Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision, 1977
  • Mediterranean Poems / Alexander Wat, 1977 (translator)
  • Ziemia Ulro, 1977 - The Land of Ulro (translated by Louis Iribarne, 1984)
  • Bells in Winter, 1978 (translated by the author and Lillian Vallee)
  • Ewangelia wedlug sw. Marka, 1978  (translator)
  • Księga psalmów, 1979  (translator)
  • Ogród nauk, 1979
  • Dzieła zbiorowe, 1980-
  • Księga Hioba, 1980 (translator)
  • Ksiega psalmów, 1980
  • Poezje, 1981
  • Moja wierna mowo, 1981
  • Wiersze wybrane, 1981
  • Traktat moralny, 1981
  • Nobel Lecture, 1981
  • Poezje, 1982
  • Hymn o Perle, 1982 [Hymn of the Pearl]
  • Wiersze, 1983
  • Świadectwo poezji, 1983 - The Witness of Poetry (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, tr. 1983)
  • Nieobjęta ziemia, 1984 - The Unattainable Earth (translated by the author and Robert Hass, 1986)
  • Osobny zeszyt, 1984 - The Separate Notebooks, 1984 (translated by Robert Hass & Robert Pinsky with the author & Renata Gorczynski, 1984)
  • Księgi pięciu megilot, 1984 (translator)
  • Ewangelia według Marka. Apokalipsa, 1984 (translator; translated from Hebrew to Polish)
  • Wiersze, 1985
  • Dziela Zbiorowe, 1980-85 (6 vols., in progress)
  • Happy as a Dogs Tail / Anna Swirszczynska, 1985 (translator; with Leonard Nathan)
  • Poszukiwania, 1985 (samizdat)
  • The View, 1985 (tr. with Lilian Vallee)
  • Zaczynając od moich ulic, 1985 - Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections (translated by Madeline G. Levine, 1991)
  • Mowa wiazana, 1986 (translator) 
  • A mi Európįnkról, 1986
  • Dziewięć wierszy, 1987 (with Karel Decedius)
  • Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz, 1987 (with Ewa Czarnecka and Aleksander Fiut, tr. Richard Lourie)
  • The Collected Poems 1931-1987, 1987
  • Kroniki, 1987
  • Kroniki, 1988
  • Czesława Miłosza autoportret przekorny, 1988 (with Aleksander Fiut)
  • Exiles, 1988 (photographs by Josef Koudelka)
  • Metafizyczna pauza, 1989
  • Świat = The world, 1989 (translated by the author, introduction by Helen Vendler)
  • With the Skin: The Poems of Aleksander Wat, 1989 (translator; with Leonard Nathan)
  • Rok myśliwego, 1990 - A Year of the Hunter (translated by Madeline G. Levine, 1994)
  • Dalsze okolice, 1991 - Provinces (translated by the author and Robert Hass, 1991)
  • Szukanie ojczyzny, 1992
  • Historia literatury polskiej, 1993
  • Na brzegu rzeki, 1994
  • Facing the River: New Poems, 1995 (translated by the author and Robert Hass)
  • Legendy nowoczesności, 1996 - Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-43 (translated by Madeline Levine, 2006)
  • Życie na wyspach, 1997
  • Abecadło Miłosza, 1997 - Milosz's ABC's, 2001 (selections, translated by Madeline G. Levine, 2001)
  • Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz, 1997 (ed. Robert Faggen)
  • Piesek przydrożny, 1997 - Road-Side Dog (translated by the author and Robert Hass, 1998)
  • Inne abecadło, 1998 - Milosz's ABC's, 2001 (selections, translated by Madeline G. Levine, 2001)
  • Zaraz po wojnie. Korespondencja z pisarzami 1945-1950, 1998
  • Dar=Gabe, 1998
  • Wyprawa w dwudziestolecie, 1999
  • To, 2000
  • New and Collected Poems 1931-2001, 2001
  • To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays (ed. Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine)
  • Druga przestrzeń, 2002 - Second Space: New Poems (translated by the author and Robert Hass, 2004)
  • Orfeusz i Eurydyka, 2002
  • Przygody młodego umysłu, 2004
  • O podróżach w czasie, 2004
  • Spiżarnia literacka, 2004
  • Selected Poems, 1931-2004, 2006 (foreword by Seamus Heaney)
  • Wiersze ostatnie, 2006
  • Proud to be a Mammal: Essays on War, Faith and Memory, 2010 (translated by Catherine Leach, Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine)

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