Facing the River Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Czesław Miłosz’s poetry over the last decade has undergone a profound change. Moving away from the vast panoramic poems which attempt to reconstruct a world, Miłosz has moved toward a more concise lyric form with sharply defined contradictions and ironies. More important, he has sought to overcome his preoccupation with the tragedies of history and ease his confrontation with American civilization, expressing an acceptance of the limitations of the art and of his own, relatively new, role as a world-famous figure. The balance and equilibrium of Asian poetry have come to dominate his work, seeking a serene detachment from passion while asserting the reality of objects lifted above time. Two major philosophical influences have guided his conceptions: Arthur Schopenhauer’s discussion of the “objectivity” of the Dutch still life and the late philosopher of the Kyoto school of Buddhism Keiji Nishitani and his monumental attempt to reconcile Eastern and Western thought,Religion and Nothingness.

In Miłosz’s 1995 collection, Facing the River, the poem “Realism” gives some indication of the source and direction of his poetic goals. Admitting that the language humans use to tame nature’s random molecules fails to capture eternal essences, ontological reality, Miłosz still insists on a realm of objectivity embodied in the still life. Abstractionism and pure subjectivity are not the final prison for the triumph of the ego, and Miłosz recalls Arthur Schopenhauer’s praise of Dutch painting for creating a “will-less knowing” that transcends egotism:

Inward disposition, predominance of knowing over willing, can bring about this state in any environment. This is shown by those admirable Dutchmen who directed such purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects, and set up a lasting monument of their objectivity and spiritual peace in the paintings of still life.

So Miłosz proceeds in “Realism” from the still life to the idea of losing himself in a landscape:

Therefore I enter those landscapes
Under cloudy sky from which a ray
Shoots out, and in the middle of dark plains
A spot of brightness glows. Or the shore
With huts, boats, and on yellowish ice
Tiny figures skating. All this 
Is here eternally, just because once it was.

This is remarkable because the preceding poem “The Garden of Earthly Delights: Hell” completes the series of meditations—written more than a decade earlier and published in Unattainable Earth (1986)—on Hieronymous Bosch’s terrifying painting of the same title. In moving from the scene of worldly hell to the Dutch still life and landscape, Miłosz conveys his desire to move beyond the tragic and egocentric to the sensuous, yet peaceful and eternal.

Miłosz’s growing interest in Buddhism has also come to influence his attempts to transcend the torments of selfhood. In his readings in Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness, Miłosz has been influenced by the Kyoto philosopher’s attempt to go beyond the Western, Nietzschean sense of nihil, nothingness, to the Eastern, Buddhist idea of the sunyata, a nothingness which is somehow a reality, a meeting place where the categories of self and object disappear in an eternal wholeness. Readers see Miłosz struggling to empty his ego into the landscapes of the past as he attempts to make peace with the torments of history and tortures of a guilt-ridden memory. The effort has produced some of his most successful and powerful poetry.

Facing the River embraces a contradiction at the heart of Miłosz’s work: retrieving the past while recognizing the impossibility of doing so. The core of the book is a cycle of poems written on the occasion of Miłosz’s return to the place of his birth, near the river Nieman in Setjenie, Lithuania—for the first time in more than half a century. Yet the river has been a powerful symbol throughout Miłosz’s work—particularly in this book, an evocation of the river Acheron, the line between life and death, earth and hell. He addresses his hometown, Setjenie, in the final poem of the collection. Almost apologetically, he states that he never forgot this origin: “Wherever I wandered, through whatever continents, my face was always turned toward the river.” That river held for him powerfully sensuous, pastoral recollections: “Feeling in my mouth the taste and the scent of the rosewhite flesh of calamus.” For all his faith in the lasting- ness of “the same presence” and his attempt to lose himself in that landscape, Miłosz gives full expression to the more disturbing shadows cast on the river.

“And this river, together with heaps of garbage on its banks, with the beginning of pollution, flows through my youth, a warning against longing for ideal places on this earth,” he writes in “Capri,” one of the most powerful and sweeping lyrics in the book. The “ideal places” are both utopias in the future, the longing for elsewhere as well as the romanticizing of home and the past which is always lost with time and cannot be returned to. Still, Miłosz insists on the reality of that past experience: “Yet, there, on that river, I experience full happiness, a ravishment beyond any thought or concern, still lasting in my body.” In other words, time is the spur that lifts him beyond time. Miłosz the hunter searches for the real presence, the apokastasis panton, as he writes in another poem echoing “From the Rising of the Sun.” History and duration are the crucial elements of hell, which is a mirror image of the earthly march of time. Facing the river also means contemplating crossing the threshold to the other side and paying for one’s sins, expiating guilt. “Happenings Elsewhere,” is a terrifying continuation of “The Garden of Earthly Delights: Hell” in which he is guided to a Dantean under- world which decidedly resembles a developed version of his Lithuanian past. A rustic confronts him and pronounces judgment, and he is led to a purgatory. One of the most frightening poems in this, the most hell-haunted of all of Miłosz’s work, is “The Garden of Earthly Delights: Hell.” Attentive readers will recognize this as the “missing panel” of his meditation on Bosch’s painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Sensitive to such details in the painting as “a harp/ With...

(The entire section is 2633 words.)