Czesław Miłosz

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Czesław Miłosz 1911–

Polish poet, essayist, novelist, and translator.

Miłosz was born in Lithuania and now resides in the United States. An early preoccupation with the history, politics, and landscape of his native country matured into a philosophy of poetry which Miłosz characterizes as the "consciousness of an epoch." Considered one of Poland's greatest poets, Miłosz also attained world-wide attention with his study of the effects of Communism on creativity, The Captive Mind. Miłosz won the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Karl Jaspers

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The essays of Czeslaw Milosz, brought together in a volume entitled "The Captive Mind," constitute at the same time a significant historical document and analysis of the highest order. Enslavement of spirit under totalitarian regimes is manifested outwardly in turns of expression, gesture, and daily conduct and inwardly by perceptible transformations in the individual. (p. 13)

Here is true discernment of issues usually regarded under the stark alternatives of falsehood and truth, betrayal or resistance. In astonishing gradations Milosz shows what happens to men subjected simultaneously to constant threat of annihilation and to the promptings of faith in a historical necessity which exerts apparently irresistible force and achieves enormous success. We are presented with a vivid picture of the forms of concealment, of inner transformation, of the sudden bolt to conversion, of the cleavage of man into two. We see through his essays, the monstrous result and the monstrous confusion of the totality of this world; we see the actualization of a thing which seems to Western man impossible and hence difficult to imagine. We obtain an inkling of the alteration of man under totally new conditions, where life is lived in mutual distrust and suspicion, in ruthless conflict among pretenders, in enacting roles, in identification with these roles. (pp. 13, 30)

Insofar as it describes specific experiences, though no names are given, the book is to be classed with those of the "renegades" who have broken with their regime and now offer their revelations. The distastefulness of such unmasking is relieved by the instruction they afford, for only a participant can know the impulses he experienced and be in position to teach us the elements. In the case of Milosz, the distastefulness is further relieved by the attitude of a man whose profound anguish is perceptible through the clarity and artistry of his objective account. This is the language of a man who is detached from concerns with self, who has achieved perspective.

Milosz does not write like a converted Communist; he has none of the aggressive fanaticism for freedom whose gestures, tones, and conduct display a perverted totalitarianism.

Neither does he write like an emigre of the opposition, with a practical interest in the downfall of the regime and his own restoration. He speaks like a man profoundly stirred by a passion for righteousness and unvarnished truth, and reveals himself only through his analysis of the effects of terror.

Because of him we shall be more circumspect in our judgments of men under totalitarian regimes. Mr. Milosz does retain, as the palpable background of all that he writes, the eternal oppositions of good and evil, noble and base, true and false, but he does not apply them as ready-made formulas. The reality of the world of terror tinges these very oppositions with new shadings. The thing is uncanny.

In Milosz we have a writer for whom separation from the world of his mother tongue is an ineffaceable pain and produces an incessant questioning of his own being. These essays give the impression of an...

(This entire section contains 739 words.)

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author communing with himself, to secure his own footing. What becomes of a man who is wrenched from his soil? In our world millions have suffered this lot. Milosz is not concerned with the obvious….

What becomes of him in the spiritual, ethical, human sense? This remains a question to which our century will supply an answer by the actuality created by men like Milosz who are representatives of a general situation. Their very humanity, expressed in their candid and serious experiences, will prove them to be truly citizens of the world.

Finally, this book is directed as an admonition to modern man who has grown empty and flings himself into a faith which involves lawless destruction as a result of terror, of which enslavement of the spirit is the instrument. Milosz's book adjures and warns against a faith which in practice possesses the remarkable configuration of verification through lies, of truth through lies, the configuration of a dialectic which devours the substance of humanity.

The terrifying realities which have often been recounted Milosz sets forth with peculiar intimacy. Here is the utterance of a heart which palpitates to every reality destructive of man, of an eye which searches the soul truly, of a righteousness which is beyond expression. (p. 30)

Karl Jaspers, "Endurance and Miracle," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1953 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVI, No. 23, June 6, 1953, pp. 15, 30.

Dwight Macdonald

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[In "The Captive Mind" Milosz's] theme is the state of mind that causes intellectuals to submit to and even welcome Communism and, once they have done so, the desperate shifts and twists and turns they use to adapt themselves to an ideology that makes it almost impossible for them to continue to create…. He is writing about just that group of intellectuals one would think the Communists would have the greatest trouble controlling—those in the East European satellite nations. Their counterparts in the Western world can still have illusions because they don't have to live with the reality….

"The Captive Mind" is written with wit and eloquence and … is both original and penetrating…. [However, it] is not a personal narrative, full of growing doubts, heroic defiances, and ultimate redemption. It is not an exposé, for the author is so lacking in journalistic savvy that he uses pseudonyms for the eminent Polish literary converts to Communism whose case histories he gives. Nor is it one of those emphatic, encyclopedic, and neatly organized works that clearly and decisively settle the question once and for all. Milosz's book represents, instead, an unfamiliar and rather antiquated form—the speculative essay. It is too bad the form is not more popular, since it is admirably suited, because of the scope it allows for the tentative, the complicated, and the contradictory, to precisely the use it is here put to, which is analyzing the ambiguity of the intellectual's reaction to Communism in power…. Except for Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism,"… I know of no study of the totalitarian mentality as subtle and imaginative as this one. (p. 173)

Dwight Macdonald, "In the Land of Diamat," in The New Yorker (© 1953 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 38, November 7, 1953, pp. 173-82.

Granville Hicks

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We can see [men reconciling themselves to Communism] in "The Seizure of Power," but we can also see something that is both more comprehensible and more terrifying—the dreadful erosive effect of misery and despair. In this brief, episodic novel, Milosz carries a group of characters from the summer of 1944, when the Red Army had pushed the Wehrmacht back to the Vistula, to the summer of 1945….

In "The Captive Mind" and now, even more powerfully, in "The Seizure of Power," Milosz appeals to the West to try to understand the people of Eastern Europe. Having lived in the United States, he knows how impossible it is for Americans to imagine the agony of Warsaw. In this unpretentious, unemotional, carefully fashioned little novel, he has managed to suggest not, of course, the actual agony but, somehow, the quality of the experience. It is an amazing and heartbreaking achievement.

Granville Hicks, "Agony and Temptation," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 17, 1955, p. 5.

Michael Harrington

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The Seizure of Power is a difficult book to discuss—and must be approached on several levels. For it lies, I think, somewhere between the two pure types of the art-dominated and the politics-dominated book. It is part journalism, part poetry, and part novel….

The central problem is to explain the relationship of intellectuals and artists to the Communist movement…. In analyzing their relation to Communism, Milosz is subtle and brilliant….

If his novel were simply a political roman a clef one would judge it a complete success.

But The Seizure of Power intends to be more than this. It does not succeed, yet the very attempt, the fact that this is not simply an allegory, increases its value immeasurably….

[The] artist constantly intrudes upon the ideologist. There are the insights, the snatches of humanity, the dimension deeper than politics, yet this quality is not sustained; it is not the informing principle of the book. One feels that the necessities of the ideas still predominate and form the main pattern of motivation. In this sense, The Seizure of Power fails of its full intention….

There is not that greatness which comes from the wedding of theme and act in Milosz's book; but it is still a sensitive, probing work, far better than most political novels, of somewhat imperfect realization but of significant intention and worth.

Michael Harrington, "Humanity and Ideology in the Novel," in Commonweal (copyright © 1955 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 14, July 8, 1955, p. 356.

Lillian Vallee

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[Miłosz's poetry] is not readily accessible and … requires a great deal of elucidation via other texts, preferably Miłosz's own; his essays or nonfiction prose …, for example, can be extremely illuminating reading. I would like to propose that this essay, a brief analysis of the novel The Valley of Issa (Dolina Issy, 1955), be considered as yet another oblique angle of approach to Miłosz's poetry…. The "deeply pessimistic Manichean vision" which constitutes the metaphysical underpinning of the novel is simultaneously one of the deepest and darkest currents in Miłosz's work as a whole. It is the sobriety of this vision that I would like to throw into relief, not only because it is essential to understanding Miłosz's brand of existential despair, but because cognizance of this darker strain in his writings should act as an antidote to some of the critical ecstasy that has tended to falsify the proportions of Miłosz's work by depriving it of its tensions and estheticizing its content. (pp. 403-04)

The Valley of Issa is a seemingly autobiographical novel depicting the Lithuanian countryside of the author's childhood as seen through the eyes of the child-protagonist Thomas. It is, ostensibly, the story of the boy's initiation into adulthood….

The world which surrounds the boy is an exotic northern landscape of trees, lakes, birds and wild forest creatures. And it is the valley, the valley of the river Issa, which is the real protagonist of the novel: dolina, the concave, the feminine principle of birth and renewal, the glory of paradise and the law of annihilation. It is Thomas's changing attitude toward Nature (and toward himself as part of it) which constitutes the real action of the novel. The Nature we know is not the Paradise of Adam and Eve…. [This] is Nature the second time around, that is, Nature as part of an order in which man's instincts follow the iron rules of survival. It is both a buffer which provides refuge from the infinite space beyond, and a part of the cosmic order which makes no concessions to man's notion of his own worth and importance.

The ambivalent role of Nature as an innocent but nevertheless obedient vehicle of a ruthless order accounts for the duality inherent in the existence of the human individual: man has a body, which is subordinated to certain physiological laws, and an inner self (formed by culture?) which is the source of a separate, ethical identity…. If Nature is our enemy and we are a part of her, then the enemy is within, and whatever weapon we choose will carry the germ of our own destruction….

Miłosz openly admits [in the poem "The Accuser"] to being "a secret taster of Manichean poisons." Manicheanism, after all, offers a more rationalistic (in comparison with Catholic dogma) answer to the question, unde malum? What, or perhaps who, is the source of evil and suffering?… According to the Manicheans (followers of Mani, 217-75 A.D.), the Devil created the universe and man. God the Father is in Heaven, not on earth, and there is no interpenetration of realms through the Holy Spirit, no grace. God is absent from the world and is anti-Nature, for matter cannot be sanctified.

If the world is in the power of the devil, then man and Nature are defenseless executors of his laws. In The Valley of Issa this kind of Manichean doom, the inability to overcome the evil inherent in existence, to avoid being the instrument of Necessity, is represented by the most compelling figure in the novel, Balthazar, a forester who shoots and kills a man whom he encounters on his preserve. He cannot grasp the reason for the murder any more than he can understand the workings of the alien force which has him in thrall. His actions are external to his sense of himself … and opposed to it, and he engages in self-destructive rage against the immutable necessity which has dictated these conditions. But he can change nothing, cannot rid himself of the conviction that he is damned, and his struggle ends in death and complete surrender. (p. 404)

Miłosz pleads an eloquent case for the defenselessness of Nature and man and repeats the point time and time again in The Valley of Issa…. This presentation of man and Nature as helpless and innocent executors of the brute laws of Necessity is certainly heretical by standards of Roman Catholic dogma, because it denies free will and the power of grace (at least as far as man is concerned). But before we tie Miłosz to the stake, we should underline the fact that his concepts of man's duality and Nature's ambivalence are slippery fish and that his Manicheanism is mitigated by an unusual (though not incompatible) admixture of pagan and Christian elements.

One aspect of this pagan (Lithuanian and Slavic) heritage is Miłosz's fervent desire to believe in the benevolence of Nature, in spite of her subdual to Necessity…. Better that Nature be humanized than that man be brutalized by identifying her with Necessity, and it is exactly this desire to humanize Nature, to bring her into the realm of human understanding and jurisdiction, that allows Miłosz to speak of her innocence. If the laws to which Nature is subject are inimical to human essence, they are equally unrelenting and indifferent to the remainder of living creatures in her domain…. The ethical facet of man's personality, that part of him which is different from his corporality and which posits values, is exactly the part of him which feels a need to express solidarity with all other living things, whose lack of consciousness of the singularity of their own lives makes their death no easier to accept. On the contrary, while man has been given a religion which promises that his soul will rejoin his body in another world, the squirrel which Thomas shoots in The Valley of Issa has no such promise of restoration in a future dimension. It is the gravity of his deed, the killing of a unique creature with no hope of its being returned to the world, that really severs Thomas from his childhood and from any hope of regaining access into the paradise of his boyhood. (pp. 404-05)

[Religion] in this novel is a positive, ennobling factor, moderating the severity of existence through its tolerance and understanding of human weakness and lessening man's isolation by establishing earthly and heavenly communities, i.e., the communion of saints. Faith in the ultimate, if not immediate meaning of a given individual existence allows man to rise above the ignobility of his temporal condition and experience.

A very moving character in The Valley of Issa, a figure which is set in counterpoint to Balthazar, is Thomas's paternal grand-mother Bronisława Dilbinowa. Her life has been no easier than Balthazar's: none of the promises of her girlhood were fulfilled; nothing that she has loved has been worthy of loving…. Nature is revealed to her, and this Nature is a predator…. Yet she struggles to believe, to believe in God against all evidence of his absence, and her struggle is all the more poignant because it is debased by her body in the act of dying, and because it takes place amid the resignation and solemnity of witnesses who cannot penetrate its terrible isolation. Her faith is a belief in the promise that never materialized, a belief that its fulfillment exists beyond herself, and it is this faith which becomes the proof of grace which Manicheanism denies and which Balthazar denies to himself….

Miłosz's ambivalent attitude toward Nature is paralleled by his attitude toward the women in his works. (p. 405)

[If] a young boy experiences his adolescence as a sudden rift between exterior and internal selves, then what of a young girl whose body suddenly evidences readiness for processes not of her own choosing? Manifestations of this readiness are undeniable, and if a woman is aware of herself from within, the impingement is stronger, the division more violent. It is exactly this kind of violent division from what seems to be her very own nature that lends the figure of Bronisława Dilbinowa a stature and fullness of humanity achieved by no other character in the novel. And it is through this character of Thomas's grandmother that Miłosz undercuts his own fears and suspicions….

Bronisława Dilbinowa acknowledges the deficiency of viewpoint which is our lot. She trusts, through her belief in God, that there is a perspective (to which she has no access) that would explain the cruelty of the world in which she lives….

We cannot exhaust all perspectives, but the fuller human experience will try to understand as many as possible and admit to many more which are beyond its own range. This is a point consistently reiterated by Miłosz in The Valley of Issa and in his poetry…. Miłosz seems to be urging the reader to imitate his own natural, systolic-diastolic rhythm in rendering his perceptions of the world around him, to move rhythmically from a smaller to a greater context and the reverse, to mark what is revealed in the changes in proportion. (p. 406)

In a sense, it is Thomas's ability to get outside of himself, to withdraw from that part of himself which participates in the processes of Nature, that indicates his nascent role as an artist, as a contemplator. Here we find Miłosz very close to Schopenhauer: since the world itself is bad, our only escape is contemplation insofar as we are able to abstract from the will, our very essence. Even though human intelligence is a product of the will, it can assuage the will by destroying desire and activity and annihilate it with conscious contemplation.

Thomas's estrangement from Nature in The Valley of Issa is, in fact, a direct result of the realization that he cannot be a hunter….

Miłosz's own quest for singular perspective, the one point from which all is understood, leads us to the threshold of various contradictions: greed and insatiety, intoxication and aversion, hope and despair. One must exhaust all possible perspectives in search for the one that will arrange them in their proper hierarchical order. In order to do this, one must experience much of the world in order to liberate oneself from it…. One must liberate oneself from the world in order to preserve it—art as artifact, the vehicle through which man preserves his own culture…. One must posit desperate faith without sanction as meager proof of its own truth: belief in apokatastasis [restitution] without comprehension of the dimension in which it is to take place. And it is Miłosz's continued voracity for new perspectives that makes interpretation of his work a Sisyphean labor: a new perspective never negates the old ones but qualifies them, and never contradicts old juxtapositions but reorganizes them….

After reading The Valley of Issa one is left with the impression that even if Miłosz had written no poetry at all, he could still be considered a great poet on the basis of this novel alone. The beauty of the book and its underlying vision should be incompatible; but they are not, and perhaps this is so because Miłosz, who gives full play to Nature as Necessity and Nature as Promise, throws his weight as a poet to the side of the latter. Is it possible that Necessity and Nature are one, that the beauty of Nature is merely a cloak for its own cruelty? It seems to me that Miłosz [despite his predilection for "Manichean poisons"] chooses to defend Nature's innocence…. (p. 407)

Lillian Vallee, "'The Valley of Issa': An Interpretation," in World Literature Today, Special Issue: Czesław Miłosz (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press). Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 357-91.

Louis Iribarne

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Reading Milosz for the first time, even in translation, is a little like reading a poet who, at one and the same time, would combine something of the early Auden and the Eliot of The Waste Land and Four Quartets, minus the self-allusiveness of the former and the sometimes bookish wisdom of the latter.

The blending of private and public voices, the imaging of lyrical response to historical events, set off by a distinctly modern irony and a classical strictness of form, established the Milosz style—and his reputation as a major poet—as early as in his second volume, published in Poland immediately after the war and now reproduced in [Utwory Poetyckie: Poems]….

Above all what this volume reveals … is that Milosz's range is immense and his voices many, and that both seem to swell as time goes on. (Hence the difficulty of arriving at any final definitions of his poetry.) The strategy may shift from period to period, even from poem to poem—from combative to contemplative, from lyrical to bitingly ironic, from Job-like threnodies to psalms of ecstacy—but the core remains firm, however occasional and versatile the poetry.

That core, Joseph Brodsky has written in his nominating speech on behalf of Milosz for the Neustadt Prize, "is the unbearable realization that a human being is not able to grasp his experience."…

In tracing Milosz's evolution as a poet one cannot avoid comparisons with Eliot and the Russian Osip Mandelstam, a poet whose aesthetic he shares and admires. An impatience with the poetry of his generation—a poetry dominated by a quaint traditionalism, a hermetic poetry derived from French Symbolism, and a committed poetry of revolution—moved the young poet, as it did Eliot and Mandelstam before him, to look back over the heads of his contemporaries and their immediate predecessors, the Modernists….

But it would be a serious mistake to restrict the sources of his poetry to the purely literary, particularly since Milosz seems to have been evolving a style uniquely his own, and also because his poetry goes beyond what Mandelstam contemptuously referred to as Literature. His erudition is awesome, though never burdensome or desiccating. The path taken by his mind can be traced through the numerous essays he had been writing since the war…. Yet it needs to be said that Milosz remains most emphatically the poet of instinct as much as of intellect—in a way it is the balance between the two that makes reading him so exhilarating; ideas untested by experience and unexperienced by a severely tested sensibility are seldom allowed access to his poems. What one is left with finally after reading these poems are not concepts but images, images that not only stand without commentary but almost escape it.

Louis Iribarne, "The Naming of Hell," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3986, August 25, 1978, p. 951.


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Political catastrophe has defined the nature of our century, and the result—the collision of personal and public realms—has produced a new kind of writer. Czeslaw Milosz is the perfect example. In exile from a world which no longer exists, a witness to the Nazi devastation of Poland and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Milosz deals in his poetry with the central issues of our time: the impact of history upon moral being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world.

Translation of his early work, collected in Selected Poems, is foremost a poetry of loss and aftermath. A more recent collection, Bells in Winter, reaches toward a poetry of recovery. The basis of his art, however, remains constant. In "Ars Poetica?," for example, the question mark in the title alerts us to the poem's theme: that although no aesthetic principle is absolute or safe from abuse, some notions of poetic practice are more responsible than others, especially in a world as violent as ours. Art should serve more than itself, and in an age of wreckage, with nations dispersed and loyalties divided, "The purpose of poetry is to remind us/how difficult it is to remain just one person." Milosz thus abjures modernism and pledges himself to values of "a time when only wise books were read/helping us to bear our pain and misery."

People, places, objects, everything for Milosz is densely historical. Destiny, for him, is shared, it is human destiny. The self cannot escape its larger, collective fate; and the norms of perception—in poetry as in life—are judged by the extremity of modern experience. An art which embodies these principles is essentially political, a way of seeing things which, in his brilliant book The Captive Mind, Milosz calls "the vision of the cobblestones":

A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers.

In this way, at least, Milosz would measure his own art. Death in itself is not the issue but rather the manipulation of death for dehumanizing purposes and what this does to human beings, as when those bullets, those machine-guns spraying random streets, makes men and women crawl. At such moments, the innocence with which poetry would celebrate the world is lost. The poet is stopped by ugliness too fierce for song to bear:

        The first movement is singing,
        A free voice, filling mountains and valleys.
        The first movement is joy,
        But it is taken away.

And yet the poetic will does not die. I know of no poet more driven to celebration, to sing of the earth in its plainness and glory, and therefore no poet more tormented ("We, whose cunning is not unlike despair") by the terrible detour through history which must be taken if, in pursuit of joyous song, the authority of poetic affirmation is not to remain untested or open to the charge of ignorance. But after witnessing the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, after the Soviet betrayal of the Polish uprising, after the protracted misery of the Baltic resettlement, the will to praise life meets hard objections. What is left to nourish and uphold? Where is joy to take root? Above all, as Milosz repeatedly says in the Selected Poems, how can we live with ourselves after the awful revelations of our own time?—

   We learned so much, this you know well:
   how, gradually, what could not be taken away
   is taken. People, countrysides.
   And the heart does not die when one thinks it should,
   we smile, there is tea and bread on the table.

The pain of memory is compounded by the anguish of self-revelation, as if one's failure to embrace "the poor ashes of Sachsenhausen/with absolute love" were a terminal diminishment, a deformation of spirit severe enough to cancel our right to praise, our right to find life good. The burden of aftermath, for those who must bear it, would seem to be final. And yet it is not. "You could scream/Because mankind is mad./But you, of all people, should not." Thus the poet's responsibility is defined in Bells in Winter. The poet's aim is to behold "not out of sorrow, but in wonder." In a short poem called "Proof," Milosz writes; "You remember, therefore you have no doubt; there is a Hell for certain." But in a companion poem called "Amazement," Milosz finds that the wholeness of the world is greater than its horror; that everything, not excluding "hue of fir, white frost, dances of cranes," goes on simultaneously and, as he concludes, that the earth's plenitude is "probably eternal." (pp. 741-42)

In a deceptively simple poem entitled "An Hour" Milosz goes so far as to say that all of us, by the very fact of our own mortality, of our rootedness in time and events, experience moments of transcendent richness, moments which become, in turn, the basis of affirmation in times truly dark:

               So that they might praise, as I do,
                  life, that is, happiness.

To equate life with happiness and mean it is an astonishing victory in our brute century—against terror, death camps, war's constant eruption and now too, the threat of nuclear holocaust. But this is precisely the labour of art in Milosz's eyes: to recover rapport with existence "earlier than any beginning," to regain that which was taken away, the first movement, joy. And that Milosz so often succeeds in his poems is no small victory. His poems argue the complexity of poetic endeavour in a world such as ours, and argue also a principle central to the kind of poetry Milosz writes: to grasp this particular art in its fullness, it cannot be separated from the world, it cannot be detached from the circumstances of its birth. In sharp contrast to prevailing notions of poetry in America—for which the self and nature are still the only important realities—literary fulfillment for a poet like Milosz depends on extraliterary consciousness; it depends on knowing the historical situation to which the poem implicitly responds, which is a kind of awareness the poem then incorporates back into itself.

Milosz's recent "From the Rising of the Sun," which is his most ambitious and perhaps his greatest poem, is likewise the outstanding example of his kind of poetry. It fills nearly half the pages of Bells in Winter, and while it takes as its subject the development of Milosz's own unique and unlikely career, it is also a wonderful poem about its own becoming. Replete with historical detail, this is nevertheless the most personal poem Milosz has written—or rather, it stands as his successful integration of self and larger world, of destiny both private and collective. In it the poet pulls into vivid form the fragments of his abnormally scattered life, from his childhood in Lithuania, through his years as witness and exile, up to the present time in California. And simply as a journey, Milosz's lyrical recovery of his life is surely one of the archetypes of our age, beginning one acrid morning "where a black dog barks, and someone chops wood," arriving finally at this most lucky destination:

   In the morning we were cutting logs with a chain saw.
   And it is a strong, fierce dwarf, crackling and rushing in the smell of combustion.
   Below, the bay, the playful sun,
   And the towers of San Francisco seen through rusty fog.

Descriptions of cities, events, and persons central to his life are juxtaposed with meditations upon the historical significance of his experience, its representative character, its possible value within a realm time-bound and transcendent. More than a little this vast undertaking resembles T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets," but with one crucial difference: where Eliot saw the world in terms of his own spiritual predicament, Milosz sees his life in terms of the world—a reversal which in his autobiographical book, Native Realm, he sums up this way: "Instead of thrusting the individual into the foreground, one can focus attention on the background, looking upon oneself as a sociological phenomenon. Inner experience, as it is preserved in the memory, will then be evaluated in the perspective of the changes one's milieu has undergone."

And yet the aim of both Milosz and Eliot is identical: to go back and work through the detritus of one's own time on earth, to gather up the worst along with the best, integrate past and present into a culminating moment which transcends both, which embraces pain and joy together, the whole of a life and a world redeemed through memory and art, a final restoration in spirit of that which in historical fact has been forever lost. And when Milosz says, in the poem's last line, "I was judged for my despair because I was unable to understand this," we see how very far he has come. (p. 742)

Clearly, through his art Milosz has earned a solution to the most pressing spiritual dilemma today: how to bear the burden of historical consciousness without despair. Facing life's terror and injustice, Milosz began by using irony and remorse tinged with cynicism. Facing life's intrinsic goodness, he struggled toward praise. No matter if these two positions contradict each other; as a poet Milosz's great contribution has been to make them join to his, and our, benefit. From the perspective of political responsibility, morality and mysticism clash and tend to cancel each other. Or so I thought until I began to appreciate Milosz's particular genius, his double vision as honest as it is resilient. The air is thick with horror and no one remains untouched. The air is thick with horror and some part of the soul must stay inviolate or the core of human worth will perish. (pp. 742-43)

To celebrate life while at the same time rejecting its perversions is the basis of all thought and art which deserves—in the pure, ideal sense—to be called "political," and we should not be fooled by literary critics of a certain type (mainly American and academic) who tell us that poetry and politics cannot successfully meet. Milosz is proof to the contrary, and his work is exemplary for the way it stands so firmly in contrast to the kind of poetry (again, mainly American) which proceeds, after Auschwitz, after Hiroshima, as if between self and history there were no tie or common ground. On the contrary, Milosz's poetry is enhanced by its fund of historical sense. Rooted directly in political realities—in events in their impact and consequence—this kind of poetry yields a new aesthetic, which in Milosz's case I would call a poetics of aftermath.

Given, then, the increasing burden of history, the accelerating intrusion of political forces into private life, or simply the brutality of events as we witness them, what claim can poetry put forth to command our respect? What sort of art can stand as proof that the human spirit shall prevail? The sort Milosz gives us, for which we must surely be grateful. I do not suggest that our poets must take up arms and join the underground as Milosz did, or like him endure the plunder and dispersal of one's homeland, suffer exile and historical shame, before a poetry worth writing can emerge. The point—abundantly clear in Milosz's work—is not direct participation but the confrontation, assessment, and assimilation of events in their aftermath; and the hoped-for outcome of this process is artistic liberation sufficient to free us from time not by avoidance but through brave engagement.

For a poet like Milosz, who saw Warsaw levelled and was among the handful to survive his generation's murder, this could never be an easy task. His art is indeed difficult. But the difficulty is not, as with so many modern poets, chiefly a matter of assess and comprehension; more simply and deeply, it is a matter of courage. Do we, as responsible adults who care for beauty and mourn its loss, have the strength to acknowledge the world at its worst and still rejoice? In answer we have Milosz, we have a poetry which helps us, as he put it, to bear our pain and misery, but which also confirms that, yes, joy is possible. The virtue of Czeslaw Milosz, quite apart from his worldly intelligence, his will to stay sane amid madness, his modest steady voice—apart from these, his virtue resides in his example. (p. 743)

Terrence Des Pres, "Czeslaw Milosz: The Poetry of Aftermath" (© 1978 Terrence Des Pres), in The Nation, Vol. 227, No. 23, December 30, 1978, pp. 741-43, (revised by the author for this publication).

Jonathan Galassi

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[Milosz's] entire effort is directed toward a confrontation with experience—and not with personal experience alone, but with history in all its paradoxical horror and wonder.

Such an ambition could only be conceived, let alone undertaken, by a writer who has been immersed in history; and Mr. Milosz, far more than most writers of our time, has witnessed some of its cataclysmic events. (p. 14)

The translations in "Bells in Winter," made by Mr. Milosz in collaboration with Lillian Vallee, reveal a voice that is unadorned and discursive, yet capable of powerful (and delicate) poetic effects; it is a voice that works through traditional forms to transform and revivify tradition. The occasional stiffness of the English I take as a kind of tacit reminder of a wealth of allusion and linguistic play in the original Polish that is impossible to re-create in translation. This astringent and simple style, capable of expressing complete ideas with great compression, and employed in a variety of rhetorical forms—narrative, verse essay, ode, lyric—permits remarkable impersonality of expression though the poet often speaks in the first person or—in a sort of inner dialogue with himself—in the second.

A primary subject for Mr. Milosz … is the poet's relationship to his material…. [His] first responsibility is to register accurately the reality of human experience…. Only an active, reasoned response to experience, however unbearable, will suffice for him. (pp. 14, 25)

[Mr. Milosz has also deplored the] profoundly humanist conviction that poetry should ultimately call attention to what is positive, heroic, generous—in a word, good—in human life….

The concessive note, the ironic recognition of the difficulty of the poet's task and of his poverty of means to accomplish it, is also characteristic; but the essential affirmation is primary, and fundamentally religious. And indeed, in "From the Rising of the Sun," the long autobiographical-spiritual meditation that closes "Bells in Winter," Mr. Milosz reveals a mystical faith in "restoration."…

His own work provides dramatic evidence that in spite of the monumental inhumanities of our century, it is still possible for an artist to picture the world as a place where good and evil are significant ideas, and indeed active forces. Mr. Milosz gives memorable expression to this attitude in "Ars Poetica?"…

Few other living poets have argued as convincingly for the nobility and value of the poet's calling. Whatever its importance to Polish letters, Mr. Milosz's work, as poetry in English, presents a challenge to American poetry to exit from the labyrinth of the self and begin to grapple again with the larger problems of being in the world. (p. 25)

Jonathan Galassi, "The Horses of Fantasy and Reality," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission). March 11, 1979, pp. 14, 25.∗

Alfred Corn

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[The poems in Bells in Winter] give the impression that they have been brought to completion against overwhelming odds. Historical, biographical, and temperamental forces militated against their being written….

No translation ever conveys much of the real poetic power of the original. The poems translated here sound like English, which is in itself a notable achievement. The pity is that they cannot sound like Polish; therefore no decisive conclusions can be reached by the present reviewer about the poems as verbal artifacts. (p. 406)

[It] is suffering and righteous anger that most often inspire Milosz to write. One can infer that he is drawn to a saintly ideal, secular and ascetic, or at most Gnostic….

[The long poem, "From the Rising of the Sun" is] a magisterial work, a summing up of a life at moments grateful and at others agonized. As a whole it constitutes the poet's testament of despair and hope against hope. In the absence of any evidence, he still believes in apokatastasis [restitution]…. Living in the heart of paradox the poet imagines the coming of the millennium…. [He] has suffered, meditated, and written. The task of understanding is not finally his alone. (p. 407)

Alfred Corn, "Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Five Poets," in The Yale Review (© 1979 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXVIII. No. 3, Spring, 1979, pp. 400-10.∗

John Simon

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The poems in Bells in Winter, interspersed with prose, are of several kinds: philosophical, science-oriented, historical, surreal, phantasmagoric, satirical, Western American or Eastern European in their landscapes. Christianity and war hover in the background; not infrequently, the setting is academia, with its own little wars. At times, this is pleasant enough middle-of-the-road poetry…. [One poem, "Ars Poetica?",] has the urbane tone of a civilized man speaking to his equals, but there is not much real poetry in it: sophisticated conversation must, to rise into poetry, become fiercely emblematic, unexpectedly archetypal. (pp. 49-50)

At other times, the tone is more visionary: "We were flying over a range of snowpeaked mountains/And throwing dice for the soul of the condor./—Should we grant reprieve to the condor?/—No, we won't grant reprieve to the condor./It didn't eat from the tree of knowledge and so it must perish." This, like so much of Milosz, is religiously tinted vagueness, and comes from a sequence of six fairly long poems, "From the Rising of the Sun," which is a sort of summa poetica,… written in any number of forms, all of them rather uninteresting. It contains a goodly amount of autobiography…. But, in the end, most of this is rather windy, amorphous, unmemorable, with a tendency to veer into opacity or banality. (p. 50)

[Nowhere] do I find strong evidence that Milosz is, as the poet and cultural politician Joseph Brodsky claims for him on the jacket, "one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest." By far the best piece in this collection is a short, wistful yet wry, lyric dating back to 1936, "Encounter."… That, at least, is straightforward, unaffected, affecting. (pp. 50-1)

John Simon, "Traduttore, Traditore or the Tradition of Traducing," in Poetry (© 1980 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXVI, No. 1, April, 1980, pp. 40-58.∗

Clive Wilmer

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Experience has taught [Milosz] the practical uselessness of poetry, yet he is still prepared to countenance a public role for it as a medium of truth-telling. The accurate use of language: that in itself is a salutary aim if we are not to be doomed to repetitions of our history.

Milosz's earlier poetry had been apocalyptic in tone, earning him the nickname 'catastrophist'. When his countrymen retreated from their capital, his view of things subtly changed.

        When we were leaving the burning city,
        On the first field path, turning back our eyes,
        I said 'Let the grass cover our footprints.
        Let the harsh prophet be silent in the fire
        And let the dead tell the dead what happened.'

The image of the refugee looking back on Warsaw is characteristically ambivalent. The poet who had worn the mantle of Cassandra now seems to wish that the horror should be forgotten, aware that in some sense it will be. Yet the past is not to be so lightly dismissed. If Warsaw is Troy, the poet is now Aeneas; if he has dreams of a new city, he also looks back at the ruins of the old, and must bear his father on his shoulders….

The structure of his poetry is dialectical. What he values is the intensely experienced moment, often associated with childhood or some glimpse of Arcadia, and the poems are attempts to grasp the intuition of eternity embodied in such moments. But to focus on these epiphanies at the expense of historical memory seems to the survivor of the Warsaw uprising a kind of blasphemy. 'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,/(Saith the prophet), Let my right hand wither' is a cry that breaks across the calm of one of his most moving idylls. Jerusalem, like Troy, must stand for Warsaw, for the fallen City; but it is also the immutable Holy City, the source of whatever gives value to human experience and will continue to do so when particular cities are forgotten….

[Dialectic] is embedded in the language. The lines I have just quoted come, of course, from the Psalms, and his style has been much affected by the poetry of the Old Testament, some of which he has translated. This is sometimes a matter of secular praise, a psalmic celebration of the wonders of being. It also involves the more sombre Biblical notion of solitary witness, the last resource of individual dignity in the age of the totalitarian state.

Milosz has written that exile is the worst fate that may befall a poet, since it cuts him off from the medium of his life's work, his native tongue. In the event, he met this tragedy with characteristic vigour. The poet who had translated French and English literature into Polish now became a major translator of Polish into English, became advocate and interpreter for a whole generation of Polish poets. It is perhaps ironic that without his anthology of Post-War Polish Poetry and his brilliant translations of the more celebrated Zbigniew Herbert (who acknowledges Milosz as his master), Milosz's own poetry would be even less well known than it is in Britain and America. (p. 25)

Clive Wilmer, "Leaving the Burning City," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 100, No. 2588, October 24, 1980, pp. 25-6.

Irving Howe

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Reading "Native Realm" [Czeslaw Milosz's autobiography] when it first came out in 1968, one recognized that, politics and Europe apart, [the author's] life was radically different from anything an American or even West European could know. In sensibility and memory he was profoundly connected to that strip of land where Poland and Lithuania meet, a patch of Eastern Europe neglected by both modern history and industrial civilization. (p. 3)

Being an East European—though very much not a Russian!—meant for Milosz that even in Europe he felt himself to be an "outsider."… Susceptible to the myths of his native realm yet soon learning to despise the claustral nationalisms [of Eastern Europe, Milosz] … somehow survived the war as an underground writer in Poland and like other sensitive people of his generation, turned politically to the left, but not to the Communists.

This embrace of politics, his book makes clear, derived less from impulse than necessity…. To live through [the experiences of the times] … meant to be pulled into politics.

"Native Realm"—beautifully written, elegantly translated—tries to find in the chaos of this life some glimmers of meaning. While following, as along a dotted line for tearing, the outer events of Milosz's years, the book is primarily an exercise in consciousness: How can a man be honest with himself, his time? There is little discursive writing, little direct exposition of ideas. Milosz relies, instead, on a sort of narrative of impression and image—jagged, montage-like—which, oddly, is at once low-keyed and nervous. At least until the last 30 or 40 pages it works superbly. (pp. 3, 24)

As with most autobiographies, the best part of "Native Realm" portrays its author's early years. Lovingly and critically he takes us into a strange world…. Here a plenitude of languages—Polish, Lithuanian, Yiddish, Russian—met and mixed, so that an ordinary person was likely to jabber away in more tongues than a professor in New York or Berkeley. Here social and intellectual life was poisoned at its very source; whenever "nationalism is late in appearing," remarks Milosz, "passionate attempts are made to relate it to a half-legendary heroic past."…

But the land was rich, beautiful, stirring. The more Milosz has been forced to become, like so many other writers of his time, a wanderer in distant places, the more he remembers the place where "The days unfolded, just as they had for centuries, to the rhythm of work in the fields, Catholic feasts, solemn processions, and the rites of Christian-pagan magic…. I entered into a stunning greenness, into choruses of birds, into orchards bent low with the weight of fruit, into the enchantment of my native river…."

For this reviewer at least, Milosz's pages on the large Jewish segment of Vilna are especially moving. He writes here with that fineness which seems part of his very nature and also with the honesty to admit that circumstances kept him apart from the exaltations and humiliations of Vilna's Yiddish culture….

The concluding section of "Native Realm" deals with Milosz's years during the war. There is a successful account of his escape across several borders which shows that, just as Picasso could draw realistic figures if he chose to, so Milosz can do conventional narrative when it's needed.

In these pages Milosz grapples with his intellectual quandaries during the late 40's, but not in a clear expository manner. He reveals through ricochet, dramatizing the intellectual peregrinations of a friend, the Polish writer Boleslaw Micinski, whom he calls Tiger. A skeptic, perhaps a cynic, this Tiger makes his outward peace with the Communist Government in Warsaw…. Almost willfully perverse, Tiger keeps near his bed the autobiography of the French Stalinist Maurice Thorez but reads the novels of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell. Tiger is a familiar type, too clever by half—though a visit to Moscow, where he encounters the party's fist, leaves him shaken with fear. Like all collaborators, Tiger invokes the biggest swindle of our time: "historical necessity." What, asks Milosz, "is this monster, historical necessity, that paralyzed my contemporaries with fear?"

Finally, I think, Milosz's effort to have a portrait of his friend do the work of clear statement does not succeed. I found myself wanting Milosz himself to come out from behind his book and to speak directly, in sustained exposition, breaking past his literary devices. (p. 24)

Irving Howe, "The Moral History of Czeslaw Milosz," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 1, 1981, pp. 3, 24.

Harold B. Segel

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If the world came to know Milosz as the gifted defector whose prose works bared the dilemmas of conscience faced by intellectuals in a Communist society, the reader of Polish has been aware of a poet of the first magnitude considered by many, in fact, as the foremost Polish poet of this century. Beginning with the characteristically apocalyptic volumes of the 1930's, A Poem in Time Frozen (1933) and Three Winters (1936), Milosz has never ceased being a poet and it is as a poet that we must come to know him better….

Selected Poems at least affords a preliminary acquaintance. The subject range is broad, but certain concerns become recurrent: the hardship of reconciling appearance and reality, the banality of the narrowly denominational and national, the reverence for life that can only wonder in mute anguish at the destructiveness of man and yet refuse to succumb to the self-destructiveness of despair, the experience and fear of loss expressed as reluctance to accept the bonds of the material and ephemeral, the sense of a nature infinite in its capacity to heal, the nostalgia for the landscape of a faraway home, the indivisibility of past and present, and the obligated specialness of the poet. Rooted in life and the mysteries of man, Milosz's intellectual suppleness rarely shapes images in hermetic exclusivity. Disarmingly casual in tone, the poems often engage by the reach of dialogue….

If Milosz the poet and essayist awaits further discovery, Milosz the writer of the self is amply displayed in Native Realm and The Issa Valley. Although conveniently characterized as autobiographical, neither truly is; nor are they new works….

In Native Realm and The Issa Valley, both exercises in different modes of self-definition, Milosz parses himself in terms of the social and cultural forces that shaped both the man and the artist. The locus of these forces was the multi-ethnic Lithuanian region of the old Polish Commonwealth….

Native Realm is an illuminating account of Milosz's coming-of-age in the cosmopolitan Wilno of the 1920s and '30s, the expansion of his intellectual and cultural horizons, and his anything but ordinary experiences during and after the war….

The expository design of Native Realm suits Milosz's purpose of isolating the various elements of history, education, and environment that entered into the formation of a mind. With The Issa Valley, however, the writer again becomes a poet reconstructing in lyrical prose the childhood past preceding the urbanized culturization described in Native Realm. The act of recall is much like that of Mickiewicz in Pan Tadeusz …, the most revered work of poetry in the Polish language. Mickiewicz's evocation of a Polish Lithuanian childhood took the form of an outwardly traditional 12-book epic. Here, the epic structure gives way to a series of loosely related images of the early youth of a boy named Thomas narrated by an omniscient author for whom the fictive mode assures the perspective of distance and the primacy of artistic transformation.

Whatever their differences in composition, Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz and Milosz's The Issa Valley sprang from the same urgency to strengthen a spirit fretted by the uncertainties of a life in emigration, to find a small island of stability in a violent sea of change. With both authors, the need expressed itself as an uncannily brilliant, as if magical, recollection of a happy childhood summoned from far away in time and space, reconstituted as myth, and so rendered impervious to the erosion of fading memory. Native Realm defines the man within a culture; The Issa Valley exposes a soul set in a landscape of primal instincts greater than the artifacts of any culture.

Harold B. Segel, "Czeslaw Milosz and the Laurels of Literature," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), June 14, 1981, p. 5.

Paul Zweig

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In "The Captive Mind," [Milosz] described members of the Polish intelligentsia who, under the pressure of Communism, had edited themselves into a standard model of hopefulness and brotherhood. Their reasons? Physical fear, to be sure, but also fear that history would leave them behind as mere litter, mere individuals. Today we read "The Captive Mind" as something more than a political document. It is also a parable of the human struggle to become a particular self, to resist overwhelming force, to ignore the honeyed call to solidarity in the name of revolution, church or state….

In America, his "Selected Poems" became available in translation in 1973, and since then his reputation here has slowly grown. It is somewhat daunting to recognize that the greatest poet living in our country writes in Polish. (p. 7)

["The Issa Valley"] is something of an anomaly in Milosz's work: His sober irony is replaced by a lush, deeply felt celebration of the Lithuanian countryside of his childhood. The black waters of the Issa River wind between primitive forests and fresh green meadows. On its banks stand cottages of weathered wood, with flower gardens and deep wells. The fields are ancient, the grooves of custom are traced deeply into the lives of the peasantry. In this valley the events of our century are no more than whispers: The First World War, a revolution somewhere beyond the forest in Russia. The Issa Valley exists outside of time, a peaceable, insular world, still in touch with its pagan past, still rustling at night with "an unusually large number of devils." Milosz's eye moves lovingly across this innocent landscape, inhabited by characters named Balthazar, Dominic and Thomas, the intense reflective boy we follow as he grows up and finally leaves the cradle of his youth, with its natural beauty and myth.

"The Issa Valley" is a novel of exile, a wanderer's farewell to a lost world, and the descriptions that fill almost every page have the ring of elegy. Yet we can also see Milosz's novel as an act of defiance. In "The Captive Mind," he wrote that his countrymen had been captured by an idea of history. Historical necessity had become everything, the privacy of the individual enmeshed in his memories had become nothing. In the novel, history prowls helplessly at the edges of this timeless valley. Within it, seasons proceed in a tapestry of detail, characters step into the foreground and disappear…. Even the novel's hero, Thomas, hardly exists. We see everything through his eyes, but he is transparent, as if Milosz could not admit into his valley even the smallest shadow of historical necessity that is essential to the creation of a developing character.

"The Issa Valley" is thus a book, even as it was being written, for which the "objective conditions" no longer existed in Poland, a book written against odds, to defy history itself in its lugubrious ideological form. And unfortunately this has become one of the book's limitations. For how can one read a novel in which events are not driven by any necessity, in which the characters are flat and the landscape is evoked with a naturalist's loving attention on page after page in a series of curiously frozen tableaux? In a kingdom untouched by history, nothing happens. Paradise defies the storyteller.

Occasionally, Milosz's enlarging irony takes hold in a mixture of wry humor and fairytale, and we hear the voice we know from Milosz's poetry…. (pp. 7, 29)

Here Milosz soars above the Lithuanian landscape, to an aerial view mingling humor with a dark pathos. This is the tone that gives grandeur to Milosz's recent poetry, although it appears only fleetingly in "The Issa Valley." Nevertheless, for a reader of Milosz's poetry, the novel has its fascination. We recognize in it images that reappear in poem after poem, as ground notes of love and regret. Here is Milosz's quarry of memory. Here, richly sprawling, is the ground to which he returns to support his view of the human prospect. Between the cozy mysteries of a Lithuanian river valley where he was born and the swells of the Pacific Ocean where he lives today, Milosz has built a structure of thought and language in which this partially successful early novel has an essential place. (p. 29)

Paul Zweig, "Czeslaw Milosz, Child and Man," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 28, 1981, pp. 7, 29.


Miłosz, Czesław (Vol. 11)


Miłosz, Czesław (Vol. 31)