Czesław Miłosz was born to Aleksandr and Weronika (né Kunat) Miłosz in Šeteiniai, which is located in the Kédainiai province of Lithuania. This area of Europe is a place where Polish, Lithuanian, and German blood intermingled over the centuries, and the ancestry of Miłosz himself is a mixed one. It can, however, be established through legal documents that his father’s ancestors had been speakers of Polish since the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, Miłosz had great pride in his Lithuanian origins and even took perverse pleasure from the fact that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to adopt Christianity. The lateness of this conversion, which occurred in the year 1386, permitted the survival of pagan attitudes toward nature on the part of the peasantry, and the influence of this pagan heritage can be detected in much of Miłosz’s poetry as well as in his novel The Issa Valley 1981.
Like much of Poland itself, Lithuania was part of czarist Russia’s empire at the time of Miłosz’s birth. Miłosz’s father, a civil engineer by profession, made a yearlong trip to Siberia in 1913 under government contract and was accompanied by his wife and son. Shortly after their return home, when World War I broke out, his father was drafted into the Russian army as a military engineer and once again took his family to Russia, where they remained for the duration of the conflict. In these years, Miłosz imbibed Russian to such a degree that proficiency in that language became second nature to him and never deserted him in subsequent years.
After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, the Miłosz family returned to the newly independent Baltic states for a few years but finally decided to settle down in the city of Wilno. This city, although once the capital of ancient Lithuania, had long been a predominantly Polish-speaking municipality and was then incorporated into a fully restored Poland. In Wilno, Miłosz entered a Roman Catholic high school at the age of ten. There, he received exceptionally thorough training in religion, science, and the humanities over the course of eight years. It was also there that Miłosz received his first exposure to the Gnostic and Manichaean heresies that were to profoundly alter his outlook on life. Nothing in his homelife could be said to have inspired the religious rebelliousness which he manifested in high school. His father was actually indifferent toward any form of worship, and his mother, although a devout Catholic, was quite tolerant of other faiths. Miłosz’s religious revolt, however, stopped far short of atheism, for he lived in a state of constant wonder at the mystery of life and kept expecting an epiphany to occur at any moment.
In 1929, Miłosz matriculated as a law student at the King Stefan Batory University in Wilno and soon published his first poems in its literary review, Alma Mater Vilnensis. Here, he also became affiliated with a group of young poets who referred to themselves as żagary (brushwood) and who subsequently founded a journal bearing the same name. While still a student, Miłosz published a slim volume of verse called Poemat o czasie zastygłym (a poem on congealed time), for which he received the poetry award from the Polish Writers Union in 1934. In the same year, Miłosz obtained a master’s degree in law from the University of Wilno as well as a fellowship in literature from the Polish government, enabling him to study in Paris during the years of 1934 and 1935.
Miłosz had already been in France on one prior occasion when he and two other students from the University made an excursion to Western Europe in the summer of 1931. One of the highlights of that junket was his meeting with Oscar de L. Miłosz (1877-1939), a cousin of his from Lithuania and a highly accomplished poet in the French language. As a result of Miłosz’s obtaining his fellowship, the two cousins were able to see each other often, and the older man exerted a profound influence on his young relative from Poland. Oscar de L. Miłosz especially enjoyed indulging in prophetic visions of a catastrophe that was about to befall Europe. His cousin’s prophecies struck a responsive chord in Miłosz, whose own psychological state was somewhat chaotic at this time. When Miłosz returned to Poland after his fellowship year in France, he published a collection of poems titled Trzy zimy (three winters), in which the theme of personal and universal catastrophe is expressed. Oscar de L. Miłosz also helped to shape his young cousin’s views on the craft of poetry and fostered his commitment to a poetry anchored in religion, philosophy, and politics.
Miłosz went on to obtain employment with the Polish Radio Corporation at its station in Wilno. He was eventually ousted from his post as programmer because of pressure exerted by local rightist groups, who considered him to be a dangerous left-winger if not an actual Communist. Although Soviet-style Communism never attracted Miłosz, his attitude toward Marxist dialectical and historical materialism was a decidedly favorable one at that time. It is also true that Miłosz did little to conceal his intense dislike for the reactionary politicians who controlled Poland after the death of Marshal Pilsudski in 1935. Fortunately, a sympathetic director of Polish Radio in Warsaw offered him a comparable post in that city,...