Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
Czesaw Miosz (MEE-lawsh) was born on June 30, 1911, in eteiniai, a small village near Wilno (now Vilnius) in Lithuania to Aleksandr and Weronika Kunat Miosz, Polish-speaking descendants of Lithuanian gentry. In his autobiography, Rodzinna Europa (1959; Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, 1968), Miosz reports that his first memories are of exile: Like thousands of other refugees, his family fled Lithuania for Russia when the Germans invaded at the beginning of World War I. After the war, Miosz’s family returned to a rural Lithuania that he describes as steeped in religion, superstition, and nature in his lyrical second novel Dolina Issy (1955; The Issa Valley, 1981).
Miosz attended Zygmunt August High School and King Stefan Batory University in Wilno—a city that he often recalls in his poetry—and was a founding member of the poetry group Zagary and its literary magazine. In 1931, he traveled to Paris, where he met the French poet Oscar de L. Milosz, a distant relative whose work and mystical temperament were a major influence on the young Czesaw’s own intellectual development. In 1933, Miosz published his first book, Poemat o czasie zastygym (a poem on frozen time). In 1934, he earned a law degree, won an award from the Polish Writers’ Union, and received a fellowship that allowed him to spend another year in Paris.
When Miosz returned to Wilno, he worked at its Polish radio station and published his second book of poems, Trzy zimy (1936; three winters). In 1937, he moved to Warsaw, where he joined a group of poets known as the catastrophists because of their apocalyptic view of the future of Europe and Western civilization. In 1939, the catastrophists’ worst nightmares were realized when Germany again invaded Poland and the Nazis quickly occupied Warsaw. During the occupation, Miosz was an active member of the Polish Resistance and a major contributor to the city’s elaborate underground culture. He edited Pie niepodlegla (1942; invincible song), a mimeographed anthology of resistance poetry, translated Jacques Maritain’s À travers le désastre (1941), an attack against French collaboration with the Germans, and wrote poems such as “Swiat poema naiwne” (“The World: A Naive Poem”) and “Glosy biednych ludzi” (“The Voices of Poor People”), which were published by the underground presses and passed from hand to hand in the desolated city. When the Communists took power in postwar Poland, a volume of his collected poems, Ocalenie (1945; rescue), was one of the first books published by the new government.
As a prominent anti-Nazi, resistance figure, and poet, Miosz’s support was eagerly sought by the new regime. At first, he gave it: Between 1946 and 1950, he served as a Polish cultural attaché to Washington and Paris. In 1951, however, he broke with the government and became an exile in Paris. At a time when most French intellectuals were still enamored of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Miosz courageously spoke the unwelcome truth about intellectual life in the East in the essays published as Zniewolony umys (1953; The Captive Mind 1953)—a book that the critic Irving Howe has described as a “central text in the modern effort to understand totalitarianism.” In the same year, Miosz’s first novel, Zdobycie wadzy, 1953 (The Seizure of Power, 1955), was published and awarded the prestigious Prix Littéraire Européen.
In 1960, Miosz accepted a position as a professor of Slavic languages at the University of California at Berkeley and moved to the United States, where he lived and worked for many years and became an American citizen. Since 1960, his books have included The History of Polish Literature (1969); numerous books of poetry, including in Miasto bez imienia (1969; Selected Poems, 1973), Bells in Winter (1978), The Separate Notebooks (1984), Nieobjȩta ziemia (1984; Unattainable Earth, 1986), The Collected Poems, 1931-1987 (1988), and Provinces (1991); and three collections of essays, Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (1977), Widzenia nad zatok San Francisco (1969; Visions from San Francisco Bay, 1982), and Ziemia Ulro (1977; The Land of Ulro, 1984). In 1978 Miosz was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature by the University of Oklahoma. In 1980, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature by the Swedish Academy. He died in Kraków, Poland, on August 14, 2004, at the age of ninety-three.