Czeslaw Milosz (June 30, 1911 - August 14, 2004) was a Polish poet and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.
A well-known critic of the Polish Communist government, Milosz was awarded the prize while protests by Poland's first independent trade union, Solidarity, erupted against Communist rule. His Nobel status became a symbol of hope for anti-Communist dissidents. He was a writer with a distinctly twentieth century voice. Having barely escaped Nazi terror and Communist dictatorship, he probed humanity's fragility in a violent world.
Yet Milosz proclaimed in his Nobel acceptance speech that the books that linger should “deal with the most incomprehensible quality of God-created things.” Without underestimating the power of the suffering and evil he encountered, Milosz affirmed that it would not triumph. Russian poet and fellow Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky called him "one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest." Brodsky spoke of Milosz's mind having "such intensity that the only parallel one is able to think of is that of the biblical characters, most likely Job."
Born to a Polish-speaking family in Lithuania, Milosz as a young man studied literature and law in its capital city, Vilna, (today, Vilnius), a meeting point between East and West. In that ancient city, Lithuaians, Poles, Byelorussians, and Tartars, Christians, Jews, and Muslims intermingled peacefully.
Yet Milosz, as a Central European who had felt at close range the impact of the first World War and the rise of Communism in nearby Russia, sensed impending catastrophe.
His first volume of published poetry, A Poem on Frozen Time (1933), dealt with the imminence of yet another war and the worldwide cataclysm that it portended.
When the Nazis invaded Poland, Milosz moved to Warsaw and joined the resistance. There, he edited an underground anthology of Polish wartime poems, Invincible Song (1942). The tragic fate of the Poles and Jews surrounding him were deeply burned into his consciousness. He personally witnessed the end of the walled Jewish ghetto.
His response to the horror was The World (1943). Reaching beyond suffering, he helped his readers find promise within ordinary things. He intimated that the world's innermost nature is not evil and that evil would not prevail.
After the war, Milosz, then a socialist, joined the Polish diplomatic corps. He served in New York and Washington DC before being sent to Paris. There, he asked for political asylum in 1951, because Stalinism had increased its hold on Poland.
The Captive Mind, one of his best-known works, was published during his stay in France. The book critiques the Polish Communist Party’s assault on the independence of the intelligentsia. Governments can use more than censorship to control people; they can alter the meaning of words, he reminds readers.
Milosz was one of a number of Central European writers and intellectuals who had clung tenaciously to the moral value of memory. In his History of Polish Literature, he spoke at length about the role of memory in moral and cultural survival.
In the early 1960s, Milosz left Paris to become professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1970, he became a United States citizen. He is not often thought of as a commentator on American politics and culture, but in Visions from San Francisco Bay, he muses about America in the 1960s.
Thoughts on morality
Milosz was influenced by his Catholic roots and by William Blake, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Oscar Milosz, his cousin, who was a poet and mystic.
Not satisfied by the scientific worldview, which limits serious inquiry to the physical world alone, Milosz focused on the moral realm. Yet he could not accept the opinion of those who wished to praise his capacity for moral insight or assign to him a position of moral authority.
Because he had known extreme life-and-death situations, he had the humility of those who have learned from experience how difficult it can be to be truly moral. He had seen how deeply selfish human beings could become when they were fighting for survival. He was not unaware of how strongly the body rejects suffering and death, even for a just cause. He knew that evil is morally dangerous even when faced by persons of good character.
The world in which he came of age was one in which many people suffered a social existence that had the demonic at its core. When he writes, in Bells in Winter, that poets should "hope that good spirits, not evil ones" choose them for their instruments, he cautions that there are times when discerning the good can be almost indescribably difficult.
Milosz writes in Visions of San Francisco Bay, that much of culture is devoted to covering up man's fundamental duality. He tries instead to reveal the nature of the contradictions between good and evil that exist within each person.
Milosz frequently experienced his own life as one of exile, not only because of the years in which he was separated from his native land, but in the larger sense that the human condition is one in which all humanity endures metaphysical or even religious exile.
Out of this spiritual awareness, he wrote Unattainable Earth. Here he speaks of how the longings awakened by his unselfconscious, intimate childhood bond with nature, a bond that almost spontaneously identified with the entire world, could not be fulfilled in the human situation in which people find themselves.
Milosz, however, maintained a courageous prophetic stance. He not only proclaimed the coming of World War II, even foretelling the crematoriums, he also prophesied that democratic movements in Central Europe, such as that forged by the Polish labor union Solidarity, would outlast tyranny. Although he grasped with great clarity the strength and nature of evil, he continued to understand and assert the power of goodness.
Death and legacy
After the Soviet Union disintegrated, Milosz was once again able to live in Poland. He eventually settled in Krakow, where his ninetieth birthday was widely celebrated.
In 2002, Milosz died there at the age of 93. His first wife, Janian Dluska, the mother of his two sons, Anthony Oscar and John Peter, had died in 1986. His second wife, Carol Thigpen, an American-born historian, had passed away in 2001.
In Poland, Milosz's funeral in the ancient cathedral church of St. Mary was a state event. Thousands lined the streets to pay their respects. He was buried in the Church of St. Michael and St. Stanislaw on the Rock in Krakow, beside other famous Polish cultural figures.
Throughout his life, Milosz had remained active in the Polish literary world. During his years in America, he had translated into English the writing of Polish authors largely unknown in the West, such as Alexander Wat, a man whose time in Communist concentration camps produced a profoundly honest theological and literary voice. Milosz had also learned Hebrew so that he could translate the Old Testament into Polish.
Milosz received many honors. He is listed at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial to the holocaust as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” His words grace a monument to fallen shipyard workers in Gdansk. He received the Prix Literaire Europeen (1953), the Marian Kister Award (1967), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1977), the Neustadt International Prize (1978), and National Medal of Arts of the U.S. Endowment for the Arts (1989). He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1981) and the American Institute of Arts and Letters (1982). Numerous honorary doctorates in Europe and America were given to him including one from Harvard (1989) where he delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (1982).
Works in Polish
- Poemat o czasie zastygłym. (A Poem on Frozen Time.) Wilno: Kolo Polonistów Sluchaczy Uniwersytetu Stefana Batorego, 1933
- Trzy zimy. (Three Winters.) Wilno: Zwiazek Zawodowy Literatów Polskich, 1936
- Wiersze. (Verses.) Lwów, 1939
- Ocalenie. (Rescue.) Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1945
- Swiatlo dzienne. (Daylight.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1953
- Zniewolony umysł. (The Captive Mind.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1953
- Zdobycie władzy. (Seizure of Power.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1955
- Dolina Issy. (The Issa Valley.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1955
- Traktat poetycki. (A Treatise on Poetry.)Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1957
- Rodzinna Europa. (Native Realm.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1959
- Człowiek wśród skorpionów : studium o Stanislawie Brzozowskim. Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1962
- Król Popiel i inne wiersze. (King Popiel and Other Poems.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1962
- Gucio zaczarowany. (Bobo's Metamorphosis.)Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1965
- Miasto bez imienia. (City Without a Name.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1969
- Widzenia nad zatoką San Francisco. (Visions from San Francisco Bay.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1969
- Prywatne obowiązki. (Private Obligations.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1972
- Gdzie wschodzi słońce i kędy zapada i inne wiersze. (From the Rising of the Sun.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1974
- Ziemia Ulro. (The Land of Ulro.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1977
- Ogród nauk. (The Garden of Learning.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1979
- Dziela zbiorowe. 12 vol. Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1980-1985
- Wiersze zebrane. 2 vol. Warsaw: Krag, 1980
- Wybór wierszy. Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1980
- Poezje. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1981
- Hymn o Perele. (Hymn of the Pearl.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1982
- Piesń obywatela. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Swit, 1983
- Dialog o Wilnie. Warsaw: Spoleczny Instytut Wydawniczy "Mlynek," 1984
- Nieobjęta ziemia. (Unattainable Earth.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1984
- Świadectwo poezji. Kraków: Oficyna Literacka, 1985
- Poszukiwania : wybór publicystyki rozproszonej 1931-1983. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo CDN, 1985
- Zaczynajac od moich ulic. Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1985
- Kroniki. (Chronicles.) Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1987
- Metafizyczna pauza. (The Metaphysical Pause.) Kraków: Znak, 1989
- Poematy. Wroclaw: Wydawnictwo Dolnoslaskie, 1989
- Swiat. (The World.) San Francisco: Arion Press, 1989
- Kolysanka. Warsaw: Varsovia, 1990
- Rok mysliwego. Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1990
- Dalsze okolice. Kraków: Znak, 1991
- Szukanie ojczyzny. Kraków: Znak, 1992
- Wiersze. 3 vol. Kraków: Znak, 1993
- Na brzegu rzeki. (Facing the River.) Kraków: Znak, 1994
- Polskie Kontrasty. (On Contrasts in Poland.) Kraków: Universitas, 1995
- Jakiegoż to gościa mieliśmy : o Annie Świrszczyńskiej. Kraków: Znak, 1996
- Legendy nowoczesności. Eseje okupacyjne. Listy-eseje Jerzego Andrzejewskiego i Czesława Miłosza. (Modern Legends.) Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1996
- Poezje wybrane. (Selected Poems.) Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1996
- Abecadło Miłosza. (Milosz's ABCs.) Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1997
- Piesek przydrozny. (Road-side Dog.) Kraków: Znak, 1997
- Zycie na wyspach. (Life on Islands.) Kraków : Znak, 1997
- Antologia osobista : wiersze, poematy, przeklady. Warszawa : Znak, 1998
- Dar. (Gabe.) Kraków : Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1998
- Inne abecadło. (A Further Alphabet.) Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1998
- Zaraz po wojnie : korespondencja z pisarzami 1945-1950. Kraków: Znak, 1998
- Swiat : poema naiwne. (The World: A Naive Poem) Kraków : Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1999
- Wyprawa w dwudziestolecie. (An Excursion through the Twenties and Thirties.) Kraków : Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1999
- To. ('This.) Kraków : Znak, 2000
- Wypisy z ksiag uzytecznych. Kraków : Znak, 2000
- Wiersze. Kraków : Znak, 2001
- Orfeusz i Eurydyke. (Orpheus and Eurydice) Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2003
- Przygody młodego umysłu : publicystyka i proza 1931-1939. Kraków : Znak, 2003
- Spiżarnia literacka. Krakow : Wydawnictwo Literackie , 2004
- Jasności promieniste i inne wiersze. Warszawa : Zeszyty, 2005
Works in English and translations
- Zielonko, Jane, trans.The Captive Mind. New York: Vintage, 1953. ISBN 978-0141186764
- The Usurpe. Translated by Celina Wieniewska. London: Faber, 1955
- Native Realm. Translated by Catherine S. Leach. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968. ISBN 978-0374528300
- Selected Poems. Translated by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1968.
- Bells in Winter. Translated by the author and Lillian Vallee. New York: Ecco Press, 1978. ISBN 978-0880014564
- Nobel Lecture. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980. ISBN 978-0374516543
- Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0520045033
- The Issa Valley. Translated by Louis Iribarne. New York: Farrar, Straus & Girous, 1981. ISBN 978-0374516956
- Seizure of Power. Translated by Celina Wieniewska. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982. ISBN 978-0374257880
- Visions from San Francisco Bay. Translated by Richard Lourie. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1982. ISBN 978-0374517632
- The History of Polish Literature. University of California Press, 1983. ISBN 978-0520044777
- The Witness of Poetry. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1983. ISBN 978-0674953833
- The Separate Notebooks. Translated by Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky with the author and Renata Gorczynski. New York: Ecco Press, 1984. ISBN 978-0880011167
- The Land of Ulro. Translated by Louis Iribarne. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984. ISBN 978-0374519377
- The View. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1985.
- Unattainable Earth. Translated by the author and Robert Hass. New York: Ecco Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0880011020
- Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz. Czeslaw Milosz speaks with Ewa Czarnecka, Alexander Fiut, Renata Gorczynski, and Richard Lourie. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987. ISBN 978-0151225910
- Exiles. Photographs by Josef Koudelka ; Essays by Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Aperture Foundation, 1988. ISBN 978-0500541456
- The World. (Swiat.) Translated by the author. Introduction by Helen Vendler. Portrait of the poet in dry-point engraving by Jim Dine. San Francisco: Arion Press, 1989.
- Provinces. Translated by the author and Robert Hass. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0880013178
- Beginning With My Streets. Translated by Madeline G. Levine. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992. ISBN 978-0374110109
- A Year of the Hunter. Translated by Madeline G. Levine. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994. ISBN 978-0374524449
- Facing the River: New Poems. Translated by the author and Robert Hass. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0880014540
- Striving Towards Being: the Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz. Edited by Robert Faggen. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997. ISBN 978-0374271008
- Road-side Dog. Translated by the author and Robert Hass. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998. ISBN 978-0374526238
- A Treatise on Poetry. Translated by the author and Robert Hass. New York, Ecco Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0060185244
- To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays. Edited and with an introduction by Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. ISBN 978-0374528591
- New and Collected Poems 1931-2001. London: Penguin Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0060514488
- Aleksander Hertz. Cracow: The Judaica Foundation Center for Jewish Culture, 2000.
- Milosz's ABCs. Translated by Madeline G. Levine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. ISBN 978-0374527952
- Second Space: New Poems. Translated by the author and Robert Hass. New York: Ecco, 2004. ISBN 978-0060755249
- Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943. Translated by Madeline G. Levine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. ISBN 978-0374530464
- Selected Poems, 1931-2004. Foreword by Seamus Heaney. New York: Ecco, 2006. ISBN 978-0060188672
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Davie, Donald. Czeslaw Miłosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0521322645
- Dompkowski, Judith A. Down a Spiral Staircase, Never-Ending: Motion as Design in the Writing of Czeslaw Miłosz. New York: Lang, 1990. ISBN 978-0820409795
- Fiut, Alexander. The Eternal Moment: The Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0520066892
- Malinowska, Barbara. Dynamics of Being, Space, and Time in the Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz and John Ashbery. New York: Lang, 2000. ISBN 978-0820434643
- Możejko, Edward. Between Anxiety and Hope: the Poetry and Writing of Czeslaw Miłosz. Edmonton: Alta, 1988. ISBN 978-0888641274
- Nathan, Leonard and Arthur Quinn. The Poet's Work: An Introduction to Czeslaw Milosz. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0674689701
- Volynska-Bogert, Rimma. Czeslaw Miłosz: an International Bibliography 1930-1980. Ann Arbor, MI., 1983. ISBN 978-0930042523
All links retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Nobel laureate poet Miłosz dies. news.bbc.co.uk.
- Czesław Miłosz memorial (San Francisco Chronicle) www.sfgate.com.
- Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz of Poland and Berkeley, one of the icons of the Solidarity movement, dies. www.berkeley.edu.
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