Czesław Miłosz

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Miłosz, Czesław 1911–

Born in Lithuania, Miłosz is a poet and essayist now residing in the United States. An early preoccupation with the history and landscape of his native country matured into a philosophy of poetry which Miłosz explains as the "consciousness of an epoch." His verse is noted for its blending of classical and modern elements. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Victor Contoski

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[Miłosz's] study of the relationship between the creative writer and the oppressive state, The Captive Mind, has become something of a classic and achieved a popularity in the West which his essays and poetry can hardly hope to attain. Yet many who know the Polish language consider poetry to be his greatest achievement.

Because of his double vision (Eastern and Western) and his double role (politician and poet) Miłosz is especially sensitive to the delicate balance a critic must maintain….

[Miłosz has attempted] to find a middle ground between the extremes of the public and private person, between the journalist or propagandist and the practicer of Ketman…. [In] his sociological essays, his fiction and in particular his poetry this search for a critical perspective is a constant theme. (p. 36)

[This question]—can one ultimately find the proper perspective from which to criticize his age?—has not been answered directly in Miłosz's work, though the constant movement he portrays would seem to indicate a negative response. But for Miłosz the value is not in attaining such a perspective (which may well be humanly impossible) but in seeking it, for the critic of his age is made more sympathetic, more human, by the very uncertainty in which he finds himself. (p. 41)

Victor Contoski, "Czesław Miłosz and the Quest for Critical Perspective," in Books Abroad (copyright 1973 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 47, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 35-41.

Joseph Brodsky

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I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czesław Miłosz is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest. Even if one strips his poems of the stylistic magnificence of his native Polish (which is what translation inevitably does) and reduces them to the naked subject matter, we still find ourselves confronting a severe and relentless mind of such intensity that the only parallel one is able to think of is that of the biblical characters—most likely Job. But the scope of the loss experienced by Miłosz was—not only from purely geographical considerations—somewhat larger.

Miłosz received what one might call a standard East European education, which included, among other things, what's known as the Holocaust, which he predicted in his poems of the late thirties. The wasteland he describes in his wartime (and some postwar) poetry is fairly literal: it is not the unresurrected Adonis that is missing there, but concrete millions of his countrymen. What toppled the whole enterprise was that his land, after being devastated physically, was also stolen from him and, proportionately, ruined spiritually. Out of these ashes emerged poetry which did not so much sing of outrage and grief as whisper of the guilt of the survivor. The core of the major themes of Miłosz's poetry is the unbearable realization that a human being is not able to grasp his experience, and the more that time separates him from this experience, the less become his chances to comprehend it. This realization alone extends—to say the least—our notion of the human psyche and casts quite a remorseless light on the proverbial interplay of cause and effect.

It wouldn't be fair, however, to reduce the significance of Miłosz's poetry to this theme. His, after all,...

(This entire section contains 551 words.)

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is a metaphysical poetry which regards the things of this world (including language itself) as manifestations of a certain superior realm, miniaturized or magnified for the sake of our perception. The existential process for this poet is neither enigma nor explanation, but rather is symbolized by the test tube: the only thing which is unclear is what is being tested—whether it is the endurance of man in terms of applied pain, or the durability of pain itself.

Czesław Miłosz is perfectly aware that language is not a tool of cognition but rather a tool of assimilation in what appears to be a quite hostile world—unless it is employed by poetry, which alone tries to beat language at its own game and thus to bring it as close as possible to real cognizance. Short-cutting or, rather, short-circuiting the analytical process, Miłosz's poetry releases the reader from many psychological and purely linguistic traps, for it answers not the question "how to live" but "for the sake of what" to live. In a way, what this poet preaches is an awfully sober version of stoicism which does not ignore reality, however absurd and horrendous, but accepts it as a new norm which a human being has to absorb without giving up any of his fairly compromised values.

Joseph Brodsky, "Presentation of Czesław Miłosz to the Jury," in World Literature Today: Czesław Miłosz Number (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, p. 364.

Jan BłOnski

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Czesław Miłosz's seemingly accessible poetry has not revealed even a fraction of its riddles. The more intensely one reads "Three Winters" (1936), "Rescue" (1945), not to mention "Treatise on Poetry" (1956) and "From Where the Sun Rises" (1974), the richer and more enigmatic they seem. Surely the emigration of the poet … was not favorable to critical reflection. But even the earlier work is filled with contradictions and intimations that eloquently testify to the resistance which Miłosz's poetry presents to interpretation…. Homogeneous yet multiform, Miłosz's poetry puts a stop to tendencies whose sense eludes even the most sympathetic of readers. The writer worked against the principle which was gaining ascendancy in Poland at the beginning of this century: the principle of autonomous poetic language.

Hence the abundance of contradictory labels attached to Miłosz. Romantic magus? Lover of classical harmony? Prophet of destruction? Ironic skeptic? Only recently, rather late and ashamed, do we understand, and not without the help of the poet himself, the cohesion of intentions which he probably had right from the beginning, even if unconsciously. In other words, we grasp the concept of poetic language that he has elaborated. It is this which gives us the rules of a given reading and through this we get at his esthetic tastes, philosophical convictions and religious inspirations. And it is for this reason that everything that was once written about Miłosz is not very helpful to us today. It is better to treat the circumstances of the debut, the literary polemics and the political experiences parenthetically. (p. 387)

From its inception Miłosz's lyric is characterized by a preference for dialogue, or at least for polyphonic utterance. It reveals doubt, division; the motive behind the dialogue is the pressing search for an ever-retreating truth. In other words, the polyphony indicates a cognitive understanding of the function of poetry. What, after all, do words like cognizance, knowledge or rescue mean, words which in Miłosz are similar in meaning? Poetry for him is not a symbolic reaching into the essence of things; nor does he rely on the rational relationships of logical conclusions. It is understood instead as an unending discussion, a relentless and haughty (because it is not accessible to everyone) search which is at the same time full of anxiety because the truth is grim. Equal partners in this discussion seem to be the mind and the body, individual experiences and the recurrent patterns of history, fleeting occurrences and the reflections of philosophers.

In order to articulate his feelings and aspirations, the poet must express himself with many voices and call doubles into momentary being, doubles with whom he nonetheless does not entirely identify. Practically every statement, whether an entire poem or a part of it, is presented as if it were being quoted and is thereby supplied with a certain amount of credibility. Its meaning is rarely given outright. It is instead revealed in relationship to other statements: in order to understand what a given voice is really saying, we must remember its partners. But the personae themselves are not immutable, because each dialogue changes and shapes those taking part in it. Sometimes the same motifs appear in various guises, tinged with pathos or irony. One cannot penetrate this poetry by relying on symbols, topoi or key words. Their significance is always relative, as in a musical quartet where one cannot listen more carefully to the first violin than to the second, nor more to the cello than to the viola. But that is exactly how Miłosz is read—which, after all, should not surprise us. The Polish, Slavic and even continental lyric of those years was dominated by homophony, and the innovation of Miłosz's technique was not even apparent to him in the beginning. (p. 388)

Miłosz has moments of revelation and intoxication with nature, but not more frequently than moments of dread and insatiety. Is he not, in fact, amazed by civilization's every effort and by the difficulty of erecting a culture which is, as he claims, the actual content and motor of history?

The split that is doubt—and its accompaniment, the polyphony of expression—[runs] … within the idea of nature, the concept of history, and also within the concept of the poet. Proof of this is the fact that Miłosz's penchant for dialogue becomes stronger during and after the war, beginning with the lyric (where the poet yields to the voice of a clearly delineated protagonist), continuing with montages of quasi-dramatic monologues ("Voices of Poor People," 1943; "City Without a Name," 1969), lyrico-didactic tracts ("Treatise on Poetry," 1956) and finally, in a multi-voiced symphony ("From Where the Sun Rises," 1974). In the last of these the poet makes use of various forms from aphorism to ode, from lyrical carmen to genre scene. He weaves fragments of old chronicles or modern encyclopedias into the verse and incorporates several languages: Polish, Old Russian, Lithuanian, Latin. Miłosz often gives himself the role of a director who manipulates the speakers: the reader becomes the viewer, who is invited to draw his own independent conclusions. But Miłosz can, if need be, speak directly "from himself," or at any rate so direct the reading that the reader himself reconstructs the genuine or desired hierarchy of the polyphonic pronouncements.

Unlike his Polish contemporaries—and there were many outstanding ones—Miłosz rarely seeks to compress the meaning of his poem into the individual sentence. On the contrary, the basic components of the poem usually remain very clear, firmly fixed in tradition and easy to grasp…. The effect, or illusion, of neutrality [achieved in Miłosz's poetry] stems from the precedence which is accorded to the eye. Certain sequences of images occur that are … reminiscent of a movie, which relates events in a supposedly "objective" fashion—that is, as they appear to everyone. Many, and sometimes the majority, of Miłosz's loose pronouncements seem not to be poetically characterized at all: we might find them in any novel without expressing surprise or maybe even hear them from the mouth of a relatively educated person. The linguistic counterpart to cinematic "objectivity," therefore, is utilization of "methods used in prose writing," something which the young Miłosz awkwardly recommended to other poets. (pp. 388-89)

[Like "Voices of Poor People," "The Songs of Adrian Zielinski"] represent various responses—skeptical, cynical, esthetic—to the challenge of the Occupation's triumphant nihilism. The poet endorses none of these voices, he simply presents them, usually undercut by irony and somewhat distorted by a limitation (fear, self-interest, resignation) in the persona or in the circumstances. That is why an interpretation of "The Songs"—praise or condemnation of the internal freedom of the individual who will not accept the news of culture's doom—depends on one's understanding of "Voices" in its entirety: each "voice" makes the other relative by referring back to the poet's entire work, or at least to the full context of the dialogue….

[In the early poem, "Tranquil River,"] is a deep intimacy with nature, perhaps erotically colored … and it awakens not only a feeling of youth, strength and participation in life's great procession, but also the discovery of one's otherness, individuality, difference…. This is also a recognition of evil, for only man, because of his uniqueness, can evaluate the neutral processes of nature ethically…. In greeting the day of maturity, the hero will then see himself as being different from his own corporality—i.e., from all of nature. That is the sole message of the autobiographical novel "The Valley of Issa": "Thomas kept noticing that he himself was not only himself. There was one him inside that felt and another him on the outside, a bodily one, the one he was born into, and here nothing was his."

In this way is born the possibility—and necessity—of inner dialogue. At first it will take on the form of a dispute as to the calling of the artist. The alter ego of the protagonist, whose turn it is …, speaks distinctly about the semimythical prototypes of the Poet. (p. 389)

If one recalls the date of the poem, the combination of lyric and prophetic powers is chilling. Who in 1936 thought about white crags of crematoria? But ambivalent reflections on civilization can be traced throughout all of Miłosz's work up to the present day, and this alone steers one away from interpreting his catastrophism as the mere expression of fear in the face of impending war. (p. 390)

"Tranquil River" is, of course, the river of time, life, destiny. It allows us not so much to examine as to indicate themes in Miłosz's lyric: his understanding of nature, of his calling and, finally, of history itself. Visible everywhere is the Manichean split which cannot be mended with the poetico-religious expectation of the revelation of truth and eschatological epiphany. But it is this very split which makes possible the wealth of polyphonic statement, the creative originality of the poet.

Its deep sources are undoubtedly romantic. From romanticism comes the belief in the imagination, in the prophetic capabilities of the poet raised above the blind, unseeing masses, who are often treated with pitying scorn. But it is that scorn which, in turn, unsettles the conscience, because poetry was assigned the task (again, in the romantic tradition) of spiritual leadership, of having the "dark masses." What is also striking right from the very beginning in Miłosz's poetry is the perception of one's own fate and that of society in terms that are, if not always religious, then surely eschatological and metaphysical. Rarely in modern poetry were the awe of existence, fear and fascination with the unknown and, lastly, guilt and moral responsibility (more generally, the feeling of sacrum) more powerfully expressed.

In this light one could say that Miłosz's early lyric was the unexpected revenge of a century-old tradition on the esthetic optimism of the constructivist vanguard which dominated the young Polish poetry of the twenties. The Źagary poets saw in the work of the artist, and especially in the revival of the language, the fullest embodiment of productive work by means of which man could encompass and control the world. In contrast to this monolithic utopia, the inspirations of Miłosz and his contemporaries deeply diverged. The temptation of traditionalism on one side and political didacticism on the other could only be overcome by devising a poetic idiom that could creatively use these conflicts to its own advantage. This took place slowly in Miłosz's work, the turning point probably being 1943. From this point on, his word was not aiming for the characteristic autonomy of the avant-garde but for "integrity"—in other words, to achieve autonomy by absorbing so many idioms (as well as experiences) that, by contrast and comparison, one gained independence from everyday speech.

According to Miłosz, the poet is someone who knows how to speak in all tongues—not only the one with which he creates his own idiom. Hence the demand for roots in the past, in history, but also openness to the most various and sundry modern idioms, popular and scientific included. Hence the enormous significance assigned to irony and dramatic forms in poetry, which allow the poet to illuminate problems that normally escape the competence of a lyric poet. And hence the intellectualization of the statement as well as the war declared on the "new Latin," which too often has become the language of a poetry capable only of polishing the specific features of feelings and emotions; and, in addition, the overt identification of poetry with knowledge, the erasing of boundaries between the lyric, the essay and the treatise. Miłosz is, in fact, a much more difficult poet than avant-garde poets such as Przyboś, who for years has been reproached with unintelligibility. Miłosz requires efforts of interpretation on greater significant wholes. The power of the imagination is also, if not above all, a requisite of wisdom for Miłosz, and he wants to effect a renewal in the reader through a combination of reflection and emotion. (pp. 390-91)

Jan Błonski, "Poetry and Knowledge," in World Literature Today: Czesław Miłosz Number (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 387-91.

Aleksander Fiut

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A basic problem in all Czesław Miłosz's poetry is the philosophical and artistic subdual of change, not only as observed on the surface of phenomena—in the ephemerality of human existence, in the succession of historical epochs or in the eternal cycle of nature—but also in the deep structure of culture, in the continual reassessment of signs, meanings and values. The poet doggedly labors to construct a dam of poetry on the Heraclitan river, a dam which is constantly undermined by the rapid currents of change. It is in this way that he also attempts to save himself from his own disintegration into oblivion and nothingness. Images of biological disintegration assault his imagination with too much insistence to treat them lightly. Tormented by the foreboding of the unavoidable catastrophe that threatens the world, Miłosz stands alone in the face of an indifferent cosmos and cruel history, which move across human fate with a destructive force akin to that of nature…. Miłosz is incessantly tormented by the hunger for values, the desire for affirmation, the need for support. Yet the only thing left him is a great insatiability, accompanied by the consciousness that it will never and in no way be sated. Nevertheless, he is not a poet who is insensitive to the beauty of nature or who denies the need for civilization's development: enraptured descriptions of the landscape of his native Lithuania and a respect for all remnants of the cultural past are eloquent testimony to this. In everything, however, he sees the germ of annihilation. Overpowered by the thought of passing, with nothing but emptiness in his heart, he experiences the acute absurdity of existence. Because how does one protect oneself from nature if her law is death, and how does one survive in history which blindly annihilates all individual and collective values?

This complex of problems and questions, formulated in Miłosz's prewar poetry but returning in all his work, is usually explained away as a manifestation of his catastrophic world view, which was born in the atmosphere of dread that preceded World War II and nourished by the economic crisis of those unsettling years that still resounded with the echoes of World War I. This, at least, is how Miłosz was read by the poets of occupied Warsaw: Krzyszt of Kamil Baczyński, Tadeusz Gajcy, Andrzej Trzebiński. From the perspective of the war … he was the one who foresaw, whose prophecy, unfortunately, was fulfilled. (p. 420)

[In] current criticism "catastrophism" has become a broad term encompassing various meanings. This term is most often used to designate the conviction that contemporary civilization is in a critical state…. The latest studies of the writings of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (or Witkacy) allow us to define this term more precisely. Catastrophism, then, is a conviction voicing the inevitable annihilation of the highest values, especially the values essential to a given cultural system or those having an elitist character….

Generally, one can say that catastrophism is a kind of historiosophic diagnosis postulated for contemporaneity which inevitably leads to a pessimistic conclusion. But it proclaims—and this is important—only the annihilation of certain values, not values in general, and the destruction of a certain historical formation, but not of all mankind. One civilization gives way to another, and the dying culture becomes fertilizer for the new one because projected historical changes are governed by a cyclical conception of time. The fundamental assumption at the basis of the catastrophic world view is the incompatibility of two mutually exclusive value systems. (p. 421)

In the light of the above remarks it is difficult to consider Miłosz a catastrophist. In spite of the fact that he transfers the laws of nature to history, his thinking lacks evolutionary change; he gives meaning to only one part of the evolutionary chain, exposing only its declining phase. In other words, the life of an individual or that of the species becomes the matrix of entire histories because they, like individual existences, are headed for inevitable annihilation. The poet of course detects the social conflicts of his times and shares his contemporaries' fear of war. But he expresses himself in a language of visions and symbols that have universal and timeless meaning…. The impending horrors of war are like those of all the preceding wars, they are only one of the components of timeless evil…. Old empires crumble, new ones arise, conflicting ideologies battle, cultures change, but the price is always the same: human suffering and the loss of peace and safety. The poet looks at history from a timeless perspective, an almost divine one. He voices the destruction of all values and all mankind, not just one of its historical or social formations.

It is probably for this reason that the values appearing in Miłosz's poetry cannot be broken down into two opposing systems. It is enough to compare his juxtapositions to those in Witkacy's work. On one side are life, youth, goodness, truth, ideal love, humility and beauty. On the other are death, old age, evil, lies, sensual love and pride. Miłosz's axiomatic system is therefore a monistic one. There is only one set of values, universal and eternal, and the opposite values represent their degradation or oppose them with anti-values. The poet does not assume, as the catastrophists do, that these values will be replaced by others, but rather that their lost power will be restored to them. And because their Christian provenance is unquestionable, one is amazed that vital, ethical and esthetic values are all placed in the same rank. It is very characteristic that Miłosz does not juxtapose heaven and earth, mystical flights of the soul and sinful temptations of the flesh. He believes, of course, in absolute beauty, goodness and truth, but this does not mean that the temporal is insignificant and that it is only a springboard to the transcendental. Nor does this mean that art is only a form of contact with the Absolute. It has a mediatory function: it should protect against change by proclaiming the beauty of the world and praising life, while at the same time unveiling the metaphysical underpinning of being. It's a little as if the poet in Miłosz were trying to reconcile the man with the moralist…. [The future Miłosz foresees], played out on a cosmic scale, will be the end of the world. Final and complete. History will reach its end…. In other words, eschatology replaces catastrophism. (pp. 421-22)

According to Christian eschatology, the history of mankind and of the world can be presented in the following way: chaos/paradise/gradual fall and return to chaos/Last Judgment/paradise restored. Although this cycle is clearly parallel to the abovementioned catastrophic cycle, there are some very sharp differences. The metaphysical perspective, the monistic system of values, the linear concept of time and the projection of a future positive utopia—these are all elements which are lacking in catastrophism. Their presence in Miłosz's poetry has been sufficiently proven, with the exception of the last element. (p. 422)

The poet says the least about the lost paradise of innocence. Its presence, or rather absence, is expressed in the nostalgia for simple and constant values, a nostalgia which is visible in the idealization of the poet's homeland…. This paradise is not a land of laziness and abundance, but one of joyous work, which eases harmonious coexistence with nature. This is true happiness of existence joined with rapture at the beauty of the world and a trusting faith in Providence. In other words, paradise is a collection and realization of all the values whose lack the poet constantly feels.

The second stage, the one shown most willingly, is expressed in condemnation of contemporary times as surrendered to the reign of Evil, in distress at the disintegration of ethics and in infernal visions. The presence of the third stage is announced by references to biblical images of the end of the world, especially the destruction of cosmic order…. In creating his artistic vision, Miłosz makes use of primal images, those that are most deeply imbedded in the collective subconscious. It is worth noting that fire, a frequent motif in Miłosz's poems, has so completely dominated the poet's imagination that the destruction of the cosmos is shown in the form of a gigantic conflagration. As Mircea Eliade writes, the motif of purification by fire is Iranian in origin and appears only once in the New Testament. It plays an important role, however, in the Sybil's forecasts, in stoicism and in later Christian literature. (pp. 422-23)

Allusions to the Bible were popular at the time [of the Źagary poets], indeed quite fashionable. Some poets, however, treated the Holy Book in a totally secular way, without any respect for its sacred character. In Julian Tuwim's "Ball at the Opera" or in K. I. Gałczyński's "The End of the World" apocalyptic motifs serve the ends of satire or entertainment. Not in Miłosz. He never deprives biblical themes of their religious functions: He is of the deep belief that after the catastrophe we will enter the last stage of world history, and then "the real will suddenly appear denuded."…

The Kingdom of God, which follows the Last Judgment, will be the unveiling of a new, unforeseen dimension of reality. It will be, as described in "The Gate of Morning," a full realization of values vital, moral and esthetic in complete harmony with nature and other people. Paradise will be one unceasing banquet of beauty, truth and love, of intoxication and awe at the restoration of man's place in the cosmos—a little as if those values had regained their lost, ideal form. This conviction will be expressed outright much later in the volume "From Where the Sun Rises," where the poet proclaims his belief in apokatastasis: that is, in the restoration of timeless duration to being….

The collection of images and beliefs connected with Christian eschatology constantly recurs in Miłosz's poetry and becomes an essential element of the poet's thought about the meaning and aim of all existence. The atmosphere of prewar trepidation, as well as feelings of at first indefinable and later completely obvious danger, influenced the genesis of Miłosz's poetic vision without a doubt. But one cannot reduce it to that alone, because the war, with all of its inhuman cruelty, introduced an additional factor into the composition of ancient religious images, supplementing them with a useful but not indispensable element. Some of the components of the catastrophic vision were only steps leading the poet to metaphysical generalizations. Formulating this paradoxically, I would say that even if the war had not broken out, Miłosz's poetry could still be decipherable in the light of the Apocalypse. (p. 423)

[Miłosz's vision of paradise appears as] a component of a deep desire, wish or even artistic creation deprived of the power and reassuring obviousness of a religious truth. This paradise, which is often an idealized Lithuanian landscape, is always eluding the grasp of the poet, fading in his memory, losing its contours. It is rather an expression of longing for a superior metaphysical order of being, for a just and final settling of the accounts of human destinies. But too enormous is the pressure of direct experience, too acute is the sensation of existential pain and historical irrationality for the longing to be merely longing. There is no certainty. The beautiful dream remains, a hypothesis worthy of attention and approval, a tempting illusion with which the poet would gladly identify but cannot accept to the end. He wanders continually and stubbornly seeks the radiant vision of the Garden of Eden. In other words, wanting to overcome his alienation and disapproval of contemporary times and to allay the need for absolute values, Miłosz translated his spiritual biography into a language of basic Christian concepts. But this translation was only partially successful, because it was lined with a modern skepticism and doubt in his own mission as a poet.

In all the criticism written up until today the main reference point, for polemical reasons, was Miłosz's prewar poetry, because it was to be proof positive that he espoused a catastrophic world view. However, the eschatological theme returns in his later poetry. It is worth noting that the image of paradise is superseded by images of Arcadia and blissful isles. These motifs, as old as Mediterranean culture …, appear in the "Shepherd's Song" written during the war…. After the horror of the Occupation, it would be sheer naïveté to think that one could sail out to blissful isles. Would it still be possible to think about paradise? The poet rejects the ancient idyll but, remarkably, cannot reject the belief in Ultimate Fulfillment…. The memory of paradise brings us to the reflection on the destruction of primal nature by contemporary civilization…. [But] Miłosz is far from repeating, after Rousseau, the naïve slogans about a return to nature's womb and its effect on reviving certain noble emotions. He knows well that force and cruelty reign in nature, albeit unconsciously. They would not have existed only in the biblical Eden, because there the laws of violence and death were in abeyance. (pp. 423-24)

Contemporary man rejects [paradise] scornfully as somewhat charming but unreal daydreaming. The sacred sphere loses its meaning or is reduced to a dimension of pitiable caricature. This belief is illustrated in the poem "How It Was" …, where Miłosz represents the earth as "the mighty power of counter-fulfillment" … where all hope in redemption is rejected and where one escapes the problems of existence by turning to the magic of narcotic stupor…. In spite of the fact that the myth is being more and more ridiculed and degraded, the poet cannot and will not deny it. He is still called "to an unattainable dell for ever shaded with words, where naked the two kneel and are cleansed by an unreal spring."

Miłosz thinks incessantly about the Judgment which awaits us. A poem written during the Occupation, "A Song on the End of the World" …, was recognized as an ironic summing up of his catastrophic poetic past…. But this poem has another, deeper meaning. The "Song" begins with words which create the illusion that nothing is in any way disturbing the daily rhythm. The Apocalypse, the poet notes, is not a moment preceded by signs on earth and in the firmament…. The end of the world is happening continually, because it is always possible and always present in another, sacred dimension of human history. Through being which is solid only on the surface glimmers death and final destruction. That is why "there will be no other end of the world." (p. 424)

[In "Oeconomic Divina," the] Last Judgment ceases to horrify the poet, because he sees in it a chance to rescue the meaning of existence. Denying the Judgment sinks reality into nothingness and the absurd.

From his diagnosis of contemporaneity the poet draws a conclusion similar to the one he makes in "The World (Naïve Poems)" …, where he refers to Thomist thought (as he admits): namely, that there is a supernatural order that exists in all of being, a homology of macro- and micro-cosm as well as a hierarchy of all existences, who find their only certain support and aim in God. In conclusion, it is possible to say that the reference to Christian eschatology in Miłosz's poetry has three functions: first of all, it makes existence meaningful even in change; secondly, it is an attempt to apotheosize modern history; and lastly, it returns poetry to its proper position. This, of course, does not mean that Miłosz has solved his existential problems once and for all. It is difficult to accuse him of naïveté or cheap metaphysics. Inwardly restless, constantly divided and doubting, he seeks without respite the answers to questions which, as he well knows, have no answers. It is for this reason that … "From Where the Sun Rises," as well as the entire volume of Utwory poetyckie—Poems, ends with the tragic admission: "I was judged for my despair because I was unable to understand this." (p. 425)

Aleksander Fiut, "Facing the End of the World," in World Literature Today: Czesław Miłosz Number (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 420-25.




Miłosz, Czesław (Vol. 22)