Milosz, Czeslaw (1911–2004)

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MIŁOSZ, CZESŁAW (1911–2004)


Polish poet, essayist, translator, and man of letters.

Czeslaw Milosz was born in 1911 to a Polish-speaking family of the gentry in the manorial village of Szetejnie on the Niewiaza River, an area that was then part of the tsarist Russian Empire and today belongs to Lithuania. He grew up multilingual and remained throughout his life deeply attached to the region of his birth and its rich intermingling of cultures. During World War I, Milosz's father, an engineer, was mobilized to build roads and bridges for the Russian tsarist army. His family accompanied him, living a nomadic life.

After the war, Milosz moved to Wilno (today Vilnius), which had become a part of newly independent Poland. There he attended Catholic schools. Between 1929 and 1934 he studied law at the Stefan Batory University (today Vilnius University), where he cofounded the Żagary literary circle and made his debut as a poet. The young Żagary poets felt acutely Poland's precarious position between rising Nazism to the west and rising Stalinism to the east. Their literary response was "catastrophism"—a foretelling of impending disasters on a cosmic scale—and an oscillation between Marxism and metaphysics.

Milosz spent much of World War II in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where he was involved in clandestine publishing and where he witnessed the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw uprising of 1944. Two of his best-known poems, "Campo dei Fiori" and "Biedny chrześcijanin patrzy na getto" ("A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto"), describe his experience of watching the Warsaw ghetto go up in flames. In January 1945, the Red Army drove the Wehrmacht from the Polish capital. Subsequently, Poland became a Soviet satellite state, and Milosz served the Polish Communist regime as a foreign diplomat in the United States and France. In 1951, while serving as cultural attaché in Paris, he defected from Communist Poland. Shortly thereafter he wrote The Captive Mind, telling the story of four of his literary colleagues—Alpha (Jerzy Andrzejewski), Beta (Tadeusz Borowski), Gamma (Jerzy Putrament), and Delta (Konstanty Ildefons Galczyński). It was a mixture, Milosz argues, of conviction and psychological opportunism that induced his former colleagues to lend their talents to the Stalinist regime.

Following Milosz's defection, his work was banned in Poland. In 1960 he left France for the United States, becoming Professor of Slavic Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. In the decades that followed, he became the most important representative of Polish literature in the West and one of the most articulate and widely heard dissident émigrés from Communist Europe.

In exile, Milosz continued to write and translate prolifically. In the mid-1960s, he served as the émigré Polish poet Aleksander Wat's interlocutor for a recording of an extraordinary oral history (My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual). He translated the Bible into Polish and much Polish poetry into English. Milosz was also deeply involved in the Paris-based Polish émigré journal Kultura. He insisted on the existence of "Central Europe": "Central Europe is hardly a geographical notion. It is not easy to trace its boundaries on the map even if, while walking the streets of its cities, we do not doubt of its survival, whether that be in my baroque Wilno, or in the differently baroque Prague or the medieval-Renaissance Dubrovnik. The ways of feeling and thinking of its inhabitants must thus suffice for drawing mental lines which seem to be more durable than the borders of the states" (1990, p. 100).

A poet with a great sensitivity to nature and an early opponent of nationalism during his youth, Milosz flirted with Marxism before breaking decisively with communism as it was practiced. He remained in his later years committed to tolerance and a universalist humanism. In 1980, just as the opposition movement Solidarity emerged in Poland, Milosz won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His first wife, Janina, died in 1986. In the 1990s, after the fall of communism, he began to spend part of each year in Kraków. In 2003 he wrote the poem "Orfeusz i Eurydyka" (Orpheus and Eurydice), dedicated to the memory of his second wife, Carol, who had died suddenly that year. Milosz himself died in Kraków in August 2004.

Other important works include The Issa Valley (1955); The Seizure of Power (1955); Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition (1958); The History of Polish Literature (1969); Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (1976); Milosz's ABC's (1997); and New and Collected Poems 1931–2001 (2001).

See alsoDissidence; Poland.


Primary Sources

Milosz, Czeslaw. Trzy zimy. Warsaw, 1936.

——. Ocalenie. Warsaw, 1945.

——. Traktat poetycki. Paris, 1957.

——. Prywatne obowiązki. Paris, 1972.

——. Selected Poems. New York, 1973, 1980.

——. "About Our Europe." In Between East and West: Writings from Kultura, edited by Robert Kostrzew, 99–108. New York, 1990.

——. Wyprawa w dwudziestolecie. Kraków, 1999.

Secondary Sources

Davie, Donald. Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric. Knoxville, Tenn., 1986.

Fiut, Aleksander. The Eternal Moment: The Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. Berkeley, Calif., 1990.

Nathan, Leonard, and Arthur Quinn. The Poet's Work: An Introduction to Czeslaw Milosz. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Marci Shore

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Milosz, Czeslaw (1911–2004)

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