Czesaw Miosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric

by Donald Davie
Start Free Trial

Czesaw Miosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1973

Donald Davie, a noted British poet and critic, currently holds the position of Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities at Vanderbilt University, and the text of Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric is an augmented version of the John C. Hodges Lectures which Davie delivered at the University of Tennessee in February, 1984, under the title “Poetics of the Unfree World: Czeslaw Milosz.” As he himself states, his involvement with Miosz’s work started in the early 1950’s, “having during that period indulged an amateurish and intermittent interest in Polish poetry generally.” His primary interest in the poetry of Poland was formerly focused on the work of Adam Mickiewicz, especially the epic poem Pan Tadeusz: Or, The Last Foray in Lithuania (1834). In 1956, Davie published an essay called “Pan Tadeusz in English Verse” as part of a symposium edited by Wacaw Lednicki and issued under the title Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature. Featured within Davie’s essay are a number of his own poetic adaptations of selected passages from a prose translation of this renowned epic by George Rapall Noyes that came out in 1917. His efforts to extract the latent poetry from Noyes’s prose version of Pan Tadeusz came to full fruition in 1959 with the publication of a short series of poems entitled The Forests of Lithuania. Oddly enough, both Mickiewicz and Miosz were born in the region that was formerly designated as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania prior to the partitions of Poland during the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Czesaw Miosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric Study Guide

Subscribe Now

On the occasion of the Swedish Academy’s announcement that Miosz had been selected as the 1980 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, those unfamiliar with the history of Eastern Europe had difficulty comprehending how a Polish poet could have been born and reared in a region that is now a constituent part of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania. Despite his own longstanding interest in the poetry of Poland, Davie confesses that he himself finds the Polish-Lithuanian roots of Miosz to be “a tangle that no outsider and perhaps few Poles can understand.” This statement appears in the author’s preface to Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric. Here, Davie uses the occasion to express his disappointment with Miosz’s novel The Issa Valley (1955), at least with the English translation published in 1981. He maintains that this novel, the plot of which focuses on a young boy’s coming of age in rural Lithuania during World War I, does little to clarify any questions pertaining to the author’s roots. It would have been helpful if Davie had taken the trouble to inform the reader that Miosz was but three years of age at the outbreak of World War I and that his family spent the war years in Russia owing to the fact that his father, a civil engineer by profession, had been drafted into the czar’s army. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, the Miosz family returned to the newly independent Baltic states for a few years but finally decided to settle down in the city of Wilno. This city, although once the capital of ancient Lithuania, had long been a predominantly Polish-speaking cultural center and was a part of a fully restored Poland between 1922 and 1939. Hence, The Issa Valley can scarcely qualify as autobiography.

Since Davie provides scant biographical data about Miosz, most readers will want additional background material on this score. To begin with, Miosz was born in an area of Europe where Polish, Lithuanian, and German blood intermingled over the centuries, and his own ancestry is a mixed one. It can, however, be established through legal documents that his father’s forebears had been speakers of Polish since the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, Miosz takes great pride in his Lithuanian origins and even derives a perverse pleasure from the fact that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to adopt Christianity. The city of Wilno, where his family eventually settled, had a population of two hundred thousand. Approximately 60 percent of the people who lived there used Polish as their mother tongue, and more than a quarter of the inhabitants were Yiddish-speaking Jews. Most of the others spoke either Lithuanian or Russian. The city was called Vilnius by the Lithuanians, Wilno by the Poles, and Vilna by the Jews and the Russians. Miosz apparently alluded to this disparity in nomenclature when he published a collection of poems in 1969 under the title Miasto bez imienia (city without a name). Vilnius is today the capital of Soviet Lithuania.

After being graduated from the King Stefan Batory University with a Master of Law degree, Miosz received a fellowship in literature from the Polish government enabling him to study in Paris during the years 1934-1935. Upon his return to Poland, he obtained employment with the Polish Radio Corporation in Wilno and later in Warsaw. His career as an administrator came to an abrupt end when the Germans attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. By this time Miosz had already published two collections of poetry. Under the German occupation he became active as a writer for the resistance movement and even managed to publish a volume of his own poetry clandestinely. After the Red Army liberated Poland from more than five years of Nazi rule, Miosz joined the diplomatic corps and was posted as a cultural attaché in Washington, D. C., from 1946 to 1950. He then was transferred to Paris, where he served as first secretary for Cultural Affairs. In 1951, shortly after the practice of “Socialist Realism” became mandatory for all Polish writers, he decided to break with the home government in Warsaw and to start life anew by working as a free-lance writer in France. After a decade of extraordinary literary productivity, Miosz was invited to lecture on Polish literature at the University of California in Berkeley during the academic year 1960-1961. In 1961, he decided to settle in Berkeley after he was made an offer of tenure as a professor of Slavic languages and literature. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1970 and eventually retired from active teaching in 1978 with the honorary rank of Professor Emeritus. He married in 1944 and is the father of two sons.

Davie begins his critique of Miosz’s poetry with a discussion of several poems that are now part of an English-language collection entitled Bells in Winter (1978). It was Davie’s exposure to the contents of this volume that initially led him to rethink his views on the nature of poetic discourse. In Davie’s view, Miosz’s concept of poetry entails a rejection of John Keats’s principle of “negative capability.” According to this Keatsian dictum, such a state occurs “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. . . . With a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” Miosz, in contrast, has argued that the true mission of a poet should be defined as “a passionate pursuit of the real,” and his own poetry constitutes an explicit repudiation of Keats’s equation of truth with beauty. He believes that the lyric mode is an insufficient vehicle for registering the complexity of twentieth century experience. It is Davie’s contention that, in order to attain these complex aesthetic objectives, Miosz has abandoned the fixed standpoint of the traditional lyricist in favor of flitting, changeable standpoints on the part of the speaker. He goes on to assert that “Milosz characteristically seeks poetic forms more comprehensive and heterogeneous than any lyric, even the most sustained and elaborate.” This generalization concerning Miosz’s poetry forms the central thesis of Davie’s book.

Davie maintains that Miosz began writing poetry as a lyricist and that he did not begin to break with this tradition until midway through his career. As a consequence, Miosz’s use of the personal pronoun “I” can be a source of misunderstanding on the part of the reader. For Davie, therefore, it is crucial to take note of the fact that the first-person singular may be employed in two distinct ways. As a case in point, he cites the example of Walt Whitman, insisting that the use of “I” in Leaves of Grass, especially in the section entitled “Song of Myself,” is meant to include everyone. Davie identifies this nonlyrical quality as the “dithyrambic voice,” after the Greek choric hymns that were originally recited in honor of the god Dionysus. Here, Davie seeks to bolster his argument by invoking the distinction that Friedrich Nietzsche draws between the Apollonian and Dionysian modes of aesthetic expression. It is Nietzsche’s position that the dramatic dialogues within a Greek tragedy represent an affirmation of individuality, whereas the choral passages constitute a suppression of individuality. On this basis, Davie feels justified in drawing a distinction of his own between the lyrical “I” of a poet such as William Wordsworth and the dithyrambic “I” of a poet such as Miosz. Another genre which Davie identifies as having influenced Miosz is that of the idyll. In an appendix devoted to Miosz’s wartime poetry, he underscores the idyllic aspects of a work entitled “The World: A Naive Poem” that was written in 1943.

Conditions in Warsaw during the German occupation were the opposite of idyllic, yet Davie does not believe that the ordeal of those war years played any decisive role in shaping Miosz’s views on the nature of poetry. He points out that Miosz, while still a student at the University of Wilno, became affiliated with a coterie of local poets who soon came to be labeled “catastrophists” because of the apocalyptic premonitions expressed in their poetry. Davie, furthermore, links Miosz to the vatic tradition that prevailed among Polish poets of the Romantic era whose mission it was to keep the cause of national independence alive. Foremost among these prophetic poets is Mickiewicz, and Davie refers to him repeatedly throughout his exegesis of Miosz’s poetry. Also mentioned by Davie in passing is Juliusz Sowacki, a man approximately ten years younger than Mickiewicz and his chief rival for the title of wieszcz (national bard). It is useful to recall that when a two-volume collection of Sowacki’s earliest poetic endeavors appeared in print, Mickiewicz dismissed it as “a church without a God inside,” since the content was completely devoid of any political or religious ideology. Mickiewicz’s sentiments on this occasion are echoed by Miosz himself in the poem called “Dedication,” where he poses the rhetorical question: “What is poetry which does not save/ Nations or people?” This poem serves Davie as a point of departure for some concluding remarks pertaining to the distinction between the lyrical “I” and the dithyrambic “I.”

While Davie frequently discusses poems which Miosz wrote in response to the inhumanity of Nazi oppression, there is little mention of those pertaining to Soviet tyranny. One of the most memorable protests against the Communist regime imposed on Poland in the aftermath of World War II is enshrined in the lines which Polish workers belonging to the Solidarity movement selected to serve as an inscription on the monument erected outside the shipyards in Gdask for the purpose of commemorating the strikers who died during demonstrations against the government in 1970. These lines are taken from a work that originally appeared in 1953 as part of a collection of poems published in exile under the title wiato dzienne (daylight) and run as follows:

You who have harmed the upright manBursting out in laughter at his troubles,Be not secure. The poet remembers.You may kill him—another will be born.Deeds and dialogues will be recorded.

Thus, verse that previously circulated clandestinely in samizdat form could now be read on a public square in broad daylight. Davie, for his part, has paid the poet a similar honor by writing Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13

Library Journal. CXI, July 16, 1986, p. 84.

The London Review of Books. VIII, December 4, 1986, p. 12.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial