Czesaw Miosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric
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.
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...
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