(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The principal group of Polish poets in the period between the two world wars was known by the name “Skamander,” after the title of its official literary organ. The Skamander group consisted of a number of poets with very disparate styles and diverse interests, and its members included such renowned literary figures as Julian Tuwim, Kazimierz Wierzyński, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Antoni Słonimski, and Jan Lechoń. Since the Skamanderites were viewed as belonging to the literary establishment, younger poets formed movements of their own in opposition. A group now designated as the First Vanguard was centered in the city of Cracow during the 1920’s and derived much of its aesthetic program from the ideas propounded by the Futurists in Italy. Around 1930, many new literary groups sprang up in various parts of Poland, and these groups are today known collectively as the Second Vanguard. Building on the formal innovations of the First Vanguard, its members generally sought to intensify the social and political dimensions of poetry.

Poemat o czasie zastygłym

The żagary group of poets, to which Czesław Miłosz belonged while a student at the University of Wilno, was part of the Second Vanguard. Because of the apocalyptic premonitions expressed in their poetry, the Wilno group soon came to be labeled “catastrophists.” Miłosz’s first published book, Poemat o czasie zastygłym, represents a youthful attempt to write civic poetry and is often marred by inflated political rhetoric as well as by avant-garde experimentation in both language and form. Apparently, Miłosz himself recognizes its overall shortcomings, since he chose to exclude the work from the edition of his collected poems published at Ann Arbor in 1976.

Trzy zimy

His next work, Trzy zimy, is largely free from the defects of the previous one and constitutes a decided advance in Miłosz’s development as a poet. Despite his continued reliance on elliptical imagery, these poems frequently attain a classical dignity of tone. This quality is even present when Miłosz gives vent to forebodings of personal and universal catastrophe. One of his finest poems in this vein is called “Do ksiedza Ch.” (to Father Ch.) and is passionate and restrained at the same time. Here, after describing a world being destroyed by natural calamities as a result of man’s sinfulness, Miłosz ends his poem on a note of reconciliation. Shared suffering will, he says, reunite longtime antagonists, and the last pagans will be baptized in the cathedral-like abyss.


Such premonitions of catastrophe turned into reality after the outbreak of World War II. The poems that Miłosz wrote during the war years in Poland were gathered together and published in 1945 under the title Ocalenie. Among the works in this collection are two outstanding poems that deal with the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The first is “Campo di Fiori” and begins with a description of this famous square in modern-day Rome. The poet recalls that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake on that very spot before a crowd that resumed its normal activities even before the flames were completely extinguished. The scene then shifts to Warsaw, where the crowds also carry on with mundane matters on a beautiful Sunday evening even while the ghetto is ablaze. The loneliness of the Jewish resistance fighters is then likened to the solitary fate suffered by Bruno. The poet, however, resolves to bear witness to the tragedy and to record the deeds of those dying alone, forgotten by the world.

The second poem is called “Biedny chrześcijanin patrzy na getto” (“A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto”). Here, the poet watches as bees and ants swarm over the ruins of the Ghetto. He then spots a tunnel being bored by a mole, whose swollen eyelids remind him of those of a biblical patriarch. Guilt overwhelms the poet as he wonders if in the next world the patriarch will accuse him of being an accomplice of the merchants of death. This guilt is less that of a survivor than of one who regrets that he was unable to help a fellow human being in his hour of need.

Many other poems in the collection focus on purely personal themes, but it is in his role as a national bard that Miłosz is most impressive. Although Miłosz’s poetic style is generally modern in character, the reader frequently encounters traces of the diction and phraseology associated with great Romantic poets such as Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Cyprian Norwid. Any avant-garde preoccupation with finding new modes of linguistic expression could only have appeared trivial in the light of the horrendous events that overwhelmed the poet and his nation during the war years.

Światło dzienne

While in exile in France during the years 1951 to 1960, Miłosz published two important volumes of verse: Światło dzienne (daylight) and A Treatise on Poetry. In the first of these works, the poet dwells on political grievances of various sorts. One of the best of these political poems is titled “Dziecie Europy” (“A Child of Europe”). After a bitterly ironic opening section in which the poet reminds those who managed to live through the war how often they sacrificed their honor as the price of survival, he goes on to ridicule the belief in historical materialism and implies that the doctrine of the inevitability of socialism rests more on the use of force against all classes of society than on the laws of history. To those who are compelled to live in a Communist state, he offers a counsel of despair: If you wish to survive, do not love other people or the cultural heritage of Europe too dearly.

A Treatise on Poetry

In his A Treatise on Poetry, Miłosz surveys the development of Polish poetry in the twentieth century and discusses the role of the poet in an age of crisis. A work of about twelve hundred lines, it is unrhymed, except for a few rhymed insertions, and employs a metrical line of eleven syllables with a caesura after the fifth syllable. The meter is quite familiar to Polish readers because of its previous appearance in major literary works by Mickiewicz and Słowacki. Even so, Miłosz’s style here is classical rather than Romantic. A dissertation of this kind that employs verse has, to be sure, a number of contemporary counterparts, such as W. H. Auden’s New Year Letter (1941) and Karl Shapiro’s Essay on Rime (1945), but the genre had not been used in Polish literature since the Renaissance. A Treatise on Poetry is, therefore, considered to be in the nature of an innovation in Miłosz’s homeland. For this and other reasons, it is ranked very highly among the poetical works in Miłosz’s oeuvre.

Król Popiel i inne wiersze

The publication of Miłosz’s Król Popiel i inne wiersze (King Popiel and other poems) in 1962 was closely followed by a second volume of verse titled Gucio zaczarowany (Bobo’s metamorphosis) two years later. In both works, all formal features associated with poetry are minimized. Stanza, rhyme, and regular meter tend to disappear, and the poet veers toward free verse. The title poem in the first work tells the story of Popiel, a mythical king from the time of Polish prehistory who was said to have been devoured by mice on his island fortress in the center of a large lake. In recounting this legend, Miłosz makes the reader aware of the narrow mode of existence that must have been the lot of Popiel and his kingly successors, for whom possession of territory and material objects was of overriding importance and to whom all cosmological speculation was alien. The pettiness of Popiel’s end mirrors the pettiness of his thought.

Gucio zaczarowany

Much longer and much more complex is “Gucio...

(The entire section is 3220 words.)