(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The death of Czesław Miłosz in Krakow, Poland, on August 14, 2004, at the age of ninety-three marked the end of one of the most important poetic careers of the twentieth century. Described by his fellow émigré Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Brodsky as “one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest,” Miłosz also has the distinction of being one of the longest-lived. His first poems were published in 1931; Second Space appeared seventy-three years later.

Miłosz was unique in many ways—in his rural Lithuanian boyhood and the youth he spent in Nazi-occupied Warsaw; in the lifelong connection he maintained with his Polish audience, even during the decades when his work was officially banned, and in his sense of his vocation as a bard of his people and witness to his time; in his religious faith and his resistance to the secularism that characterizes much of modern art in the West; in writing all of his poems in Polish through thirty-nine years of exile from his native land, spent first in Paris and then in Berkeley, California. He was also something very rare: a writer who continued to work at the highest level of his art into his tenth decade and, in the process, provided his readers with a perspective that is seldom found in literature.

Miłosz was not a late bloomer, but wide recognition of his poetic achievement certainly came late in his life. Since his work was prohibited in Eastern Europe, for most of his career it was all first published by obscure Polish émigré journals and publishing houses and had to be passed hand-to-hand in his native land. Most readers in the United States do not pay much attention to modern poetry, and there was even less interest in Polish poetry in translation during the Cold War years. Miłosz was known in Western Europe and the United States, but until the end of the 1970's his reputation was primarily based on his prose and scholarship: on his study of intellectuals under communism, published in English as The Captive Mind (1955) and his History of Polish Literature(1969), on his anthology Postwar Polish Poetry (1965), and his early novel The Seizure of Power (1955). He was sixty-eight and still largely unknown as a poet when he was awarded the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1978 and seventy when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980 and first gained real fame.

At a time when most people retire, he then began one of the most productive periods of his long artistic life. In fact, more than half of the work gathered in his 747-page New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001(2001) was written after he received the Nobel Prize. Like the poems written in his seventies and eighties—published in English as Provinces(1991), Facing the River(1995), Road-Side Dog (1998), and This (2001)—the poems written in his nineties and collected in Second Spacedisplay the art of a master who lost few of his artistic powers and none of his ambition.

This collection is not just Miłosz's last book, it is also a book focused on last things—on meditations from the vantage of the final years of a long life about the body and the soul, time and eternity, youth and age, memory and desire, appearance and reality, pride and guilt, faith and doubt, past, present and future, earth, Heaven and Hell, the nature of Nature and of God. The book begins with thoughts of the “heavenly halls” and the desire to go beyond the physical world of earth to recapture “that other space” of Heaven and Hell; it ends with Orpheus, the poet returned from Hell, unable to raise the dead yet warmed by the earth. In between, the book's five sections never lose sight of either this world or the next.

The first section consists of a series of short lyrics of self-assessment, memory, longing, and observation. The second, “Father Severinus,” is a sequence of eleven meditations by a priest who struggles with religious doubt. In the twenty-three poems of the third part, “Treatise on Theology,” Miłosz recalls his youth, his own early struggles with religious doubt, and the influence of the ideas of the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz and the philosopher Jakob Boehme on his quest for understanding. In part 4, “Apprentice,” Miłosz returns, as he has in so...

(The entire section is 1770 words.)