Czesław Miłosz 1911–
(Has also written under pseudonym of J. Syruc) Polish poet, essayist, novelist, translator, and editor.
Miłosz, the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in literature, is often called Poland's greatest living poet, although for political reasons his work has not been published in Poland for over forty years and he has been in exile since 1951. He writes nearly all of his poetry in Polish, saying that "poetry can only be written in the language one spoke in his childhood." In his essays, Miłosz emphasizes the important role that he believes history must play in poetry, and in his own work can be seen the effects of his exposure to the political and military turbulence which characterized Eastern Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.
Miłosz was born and educated in Lithuania, a small Baltic country which has been under the control of Poland or Russia for most of its existence. While studying law at the University of Vilnius, Miłosz wrote poetry and was a founder of a leftist literary group, the "Catastrophists," which prophesied a cataclysmic global war. Miłosz spent World War II in Warsaw, writing, editing, and translating for the Polish resistance. After the war, he served Stalinist Poland as a diplomat for several years but left his country in 1951 because he objected to compulsory "Socialist Realism" and felt that the regimentation of cultural life under the totalitarian regime made it impossible for him to continue there as an author. He went first to France, and since 1961 he has lived in the United States, teaching Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley.
In his collection of essays The Witness of Poetry (1983), Miłosz contends that the most meaningful poetry fuses the individual with a particular historical circumstance. Referring to the radical upheavals which have plagued Eastern Europe, Miłosz views poetry as "a witness and a participant in one of mankind's major transformations." He contrasts the poetry of Eastern Europe, tied to history and universalized by the magnitude of such tragedies as the Nazi blitzkrieg, the Holocaust, and the oppression of Soviet domination, with Western poetry, which tends to emphasize the individual and to be introspective and confessional. Miłosz considers Western poetry a statement of personal alienation, while Eastern European poetry gains strength "when an entire community is struck by misfortune." In the aftermath of World War II atrocities, Miłosz believes that one of poetry's most important functions is to bear witness to the reality of tragic events. In a 1945 poem he asks, "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?" and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he stated: "Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were and by wresting the past from fictions and legends."
Miłosz's early poetry, most of which has not been translated, was apocalyptic. In the early 1940s, when the predictions of Miłosz and the other Catastrophists had been realized, Miłosz began writing anti-Nazi poetry which was published clandestinely. His war poems are his best known in the United States and many critics say they are his most powerful. Some of these poems express the guilt of the Holocaust survivor. Critics note Miłosz's restraint and most agree that he effectively communicates the horror and anguish of the time. Miłosz commented in The History of Polish Literature (1969): "When a poet is overwhelmed by strong emotions, his form tends to become more simple and more direct." Even in his recent work. Miłosz has for the most part avoided the experimentation with language that characterizes much modern poetry, concentrating more on the clear expression of ideas. His later poetry sometimes verges on rhythmical prose and contains many classical elements, including a respect for balance and form and an economical style. However, much of his work is also strongly emotional and acknowledges a transcendent spirituality. Critics have commented on the influence of Miłosz's Roman Catholic background and his Manichean fascination with good and evil both in his poetry and his prose A humanistic outrage at the evil in the world, whether it is Nazism in Europe or corruption in California, is a hallmark of his work. English language collections of Miłosz's poetry include Selected Poems (1973; revised 1981), Bells in Winter (1978), and The Separate Notebooks (1984).
Although Miłosz considers himself primarily a poet, he has also treated the historical events of twentieth-century Eastern Europe in a variety of respected prose works. His first American publication, Zniewolony umysl (1953; The Captive Mind), is a study of the effects of communism on creativity which he wrote to explain his defection from Poland. It is a stridently antitotalitarian work in which Miłosz tells the true stories of four unidentified writers under a totalitarian regime. Dolina Issy (1955; The Issa Valley), about Miłosz's youth in Lithuania, has been variously described as an autobiographical novel, a lyric novel, and a long prose poem. Miłosz said in his Nobel Lecture that "the landscape and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me"; these are most apparent in Issa Valley, which reveals his strong feeling for the ancestry and history of Lithuania as well as his love of nature. Rodzinna Europa (1959; Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition) is a more expository, autobiographical work which incorporates historical events of Europe with the story of the growth of an intellectual. As in The Captive Mind and The Witness of Poetry, Miłosz deals with the effects of social and political upheaval in Eastern Europe on its intellectuals and distinguishes between intellectual life in Eastern Europe and in Western societies. Miłosz's later works, both his poetry and a collection of essays, Widzenia nad Zatoka San Francisco (1969; Visions from San Francisco Bay), often touch on his feelings of loss associated with living in exile. Miłosz feels that exile is a universal state in the twentieth century, and the committee which awarded him the Nobel Prize called him "an exiled writer—a stranger for whom the physical exile is really a reflection of a metaphysical … exile applying to humanity in general." Miłosz has also written several scholarly works dealing with Slavic literature and numerous philosophical essays.
While Miłosz has always elicited interest among academics, his reputation grew significantly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Many of his works were then reprinted or printed for the first time in English; more importantly, Miłosz received his first officially sanctioned publication in Poland since 1936. In 1981, he visited his country for the first time since his exile and was hailed as a symbol of the resurgence of freedom in Poland. Criticism of Miłosz's work has tended to focus first on his stimulating political and moral ideas and his historical content, and only secondarily on the literary merits of the work; negative criticism on either count has been scant. The exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky called Miłosz "one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest."
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 11, 22 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)