Form and Content

Perhaps the most well known contemporary Polish poet, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, Czesaw Miosz never restricted himself solely to the composition of verse, although this prolific man of letters considers poetry as his true vocation. Although many critics consider his early work, published in the 1930’s and 1940’s, such as the volumes Trzy zimy (1936; three winters) and Ocalenie (1945; rescue), to be his best, Miosz continues to exert a powerful influence on poets both in Poland and abroad. A capable translator of contemporary verse, Miosz’s position as professor of Slavic literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, has had beneficial results for the propagation of modern Polish poetry in the Anglo-Saxon nations.

After five years in the diplomatic service of the Polish People’s Republic, Miosz decided on political exile away from his homeland. Residing first in France, and finally in the United States, he composed the best-known and most influential volumes of his belles lettres during this period.

The Land of Ulro, as a journal-like volume of reflective essays, springs from the same belletristic tradition as Zniewolony umsyl (1953; The Captive Mind, 1953) and Rodzinna Europa (1958; Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, 1968). Nevertheless, there is one important difference between these volumes and The Land of Ulro. While the two former works were written expressly with the Western reader in mind, Miosz considers The Land of Ulro his one “maverick” work which, as he confides to Ewa Czarnecka in Podrozny swiata: Rozmowy z Czesawem Mioszem (1983; Conversations with Czesaw Miosz, 1987), he wrote for himself, “without...

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The Land of Ulro

The Land of Ulro first appeared in Polish in 1977 as Ziemia Ulro, issued by the émigré publisher Institut Littéraire in Paris. At that time, Czesaw Miosz could not have guessed that within several years he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature and see many of his works, theretofore largely inaccessible to non-Polish readers, translated into English and many other languages.

It is fortunate that Miosz was not granted knowledge of the future, for if he had been, he would not have written The Land of Ulro. As he explains in a preface written for the English-language edition,Dear reader, this book was not intended for you, and I feel you should be forewarned before you enter its bizarre tangle. When writing it, I indulged in a personal whim, dismissing in advance the idea of its publication in English. While other books of mine, such as The Captive Mind or Native Realm, took into account a Western audience, to whom I tried to explain the corner of Europe from which I come, this time I gave free rein to my meditations.

Miosz goes on to say that the “decision to write The Land of Ulro was an act of perfect freedom.” That freedom, which makes The Land of Ulro such an extraordinary book, would not have been available to him had he known that he was writing for a worldwide (if still modest by best-seller standards) readership.

Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? Certainly, freedom from the realm of the purely “literary”; this is a recurring theme throughout the book. At one point, Miosz steps back for a moment: “The name Dostoyevsky keeps issuing from my pen. That is so because life is short, and I am attracted less and less to a literature which is self-consciously literary.” Freedom to explore “an unorthodox tradition,” to pursue unfashionable currents of thought in a highly personal manner.

Miosz himself has referred to The Land of Ulro as a “spiritual autobiography.” In an earlier autobiographical work, Rodzinna Europa (1958), published in English translation as Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition (1968; reissued 1981), Miosz concentrated on those aspects of his life that were exemplary of the Central European experience. Missing were the personal details that are the stuff of most autobiographies. In that respect, The Land of Ulro is no more revealing, yet in another sense it is an intimate self-portrait, for it traces Miosz’s intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage. Still, here as in Native Realm, Miosz’s emphasis is not on his experience for its own sake but rather on its exemplary character. If in Native Realm he bore witness as a child of the “corner of Europe” that shaped him, here he speaks as one who has dwelled in Ulro.

What—or where—is Ulro? The book’s epigraph, taken from William Blake’s Jerusalem—“They rage like wild beasts in the forests of affliction/ In the dreams of Ulro they repent of their human kindness”—gives the reader a clue, and Miosz soon provides a fuller answer:The name Ulro is from Blake. It denotes that realm of spiritual pain such as is borne and must be borne by the crippled man. Blake himself was not one of its inhabitants, unlike the scientists, those proponents of Newtonian physics, the philosophers, and most other poets and artists of his day. And that goes for their descendants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to and including the present.

What has crippled human beings in the period demarked by Miosz is the ever-growing “dichotomy between the world of scientific laws—cold, indifferent to human values—and man’s inner world.” This dichotomy produces what Erich Heller has termed “the disinherited mind,” defined by Miosz as “a mind torn between the certainty of man’s insignificance in the immensity of a hostile universe, and an urge, born of wounded pride, to endow man with preeminence.”

At this point, the reader may become impatient, asking: Is the Land of Ulro merely another name for “the Waste Land”? Is Miosz’s book, then, an all-too-familiar account...

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