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Czesław Miłosz

Poet, prose writer and essayist, translator, author of several dozen books translated into numerous languages. Winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize and other prestigious literary awards, holder of honorary Ph. D. degrees of universities in the USA and in Poland, honorary citizen of Lithuania and the City of Cracow. Born on 30 June 1911 in Szetejnie (Šeteniai) in Lithuania, he made his debut as a poet in Vilnius, where he attended secondary school and the university. In 1937, he moved to Warsaw and lived there throughout the Nazi occupation. After the war, he worked at diplomatic posts of the communist People’s Republic of Poland – in the USA and France until February 1951, when he applied for political asylum in Paris. After 1960, when he left France, he worked at the University of Berkeley teaching Slavic languages and literatures. Until 1989, he published mainly in “Kultura”, a Polish émigré publishing house in Paris, while in Poland his work appeared in clandestine publications. From 1993, he divided his time between Berkeley and Cracow. He died in Cracow on 14 August 2004 and was buried in the Crypt of Honour in the famous Pauline Church on the Rock, alongside writer and painter Stanisław Wyspiański, painter Jacek Malczewski, composer Karol Szymanowski and other prominent artists from the pantheon of Polish culture.

His contemporary poets, including Josif Brodski and Seamus Heaney, placed his work amongst the most remarkable phenomena in the poetry of the 20th century. Both in his poems and translations Miłosz, comfortably at home with poetry written across centuries – ranging from the Bible to the 20th century American poets – transgresses the boundaries of literary genres and uses various registers of speech in his work. The young Miłosz starts off with visionary and symbolic poems full of oblique metaphors, in which the idyllic walks hand in hand with the apocalyptic – to arrive, as an old master, at philosophical, meditative pieces, written almost in bare prose. His oeuvre includes, apart from song-poems, occasional and elegiac poems, theological treatises - like the series The World: A Naïve Poem (1943) written in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw or Six lectures in verse form the Chronicles series (1987); perverse pastiches such as a late poem entitled In honour of Father Baka from the Last Poems collection (2006). Miłosz’s poetry involves a remarkable variety of inner landscapes and self-images and roles he assumes. Besides Lithuanian scenery, there are the plains of Mazovia, the besieged Warsaw with the ghetto, the Alpine valleys, the cliffs of Brittany, streets of modern metropolises and the rocky deserts and gardens of California. Miłosz himself comes across, alternately, as a pure lyricist and a morally aware citizen who writes about the “memory of the wounds” of his age. A catastrophist, an “ecstatic pessimist”, author of hymns of praise to the delights of the earth, a rationalist full of irony and a metaphysicist, “a secret eater of Manichean poisons”. Time in his poetry is as much the stuff of history as it is of myth; he is a man of the 20th century while at the same time a contemporary of Orpheus, of a Polish Calvinist nobleman; of a young Mickiewicz; the stars that shine on him are the ones which once shone upon Laura and Filon’s sycamore. He is guided by the voices of the dead; his images are selected by an “imagination of a millennium”.

As a novelist, he gained acclaim with his novel The Seizure of Power (1953), describing the early days of the communist rule in Poland. Yet it is the largely autobiographical novel The Issa Valley (1955) that aspires to the rank of a masterpiece, a fairy tale from childhood, it would seem, yet concealing a “masked theological treatise” – as Miłosz would often refer to it. Personal themes recur in his essay work, both in the The Captive Mind, a book which has become a classic of literature dealing with the lure of totalitarian thinking and in the Native Realm (1959), an essay on the fortunes of an individual from a different, “lesser” Europe, and in his intellectual autobiography The Land of Ulro (1977). These and subsequent books, like The Witness of Poetry (1983), Search for a Fatherland (1992) or Life on Islands (1997) introduce the reader to the recesses of individual and collective destiny, the very heart of the matter of life and literature today. Miłosz often condemned literature, as he put it, “too literary”. He contended that the only true goal of literature (and the reason to write) is to make it easier for the reader to relish life, or at least to make its blows fall less heavily.

Marek Zaleski