Czesław Miłosz’s Century

by Bruce Berglund.

While visiting a friend’s house recently, I noticed a new copy of Czesław Miłosz’s Collected Poems on his shelf. With my friend out of the room, I snuck the book down and turned to my favorite poems by Miłosz – which are my favorite poems by any poet. As a historian, I am drawn to Miłosz’s awareness of his existence within history and his careful attention to the past, specifically the details of his youth in czarist-era Lithuania and the interwar Polish republic. Ten years ago, just after Miłosz’s death, I wrote an essay on those themes in his writing for a now-defunct website. Contrary to the conventional notion that anything posted on the internet stays there forever, my essay and the website where it appeared have been scrubbed completely from cyberspace. I post the essay again, with some modification, in hope that this blog’s readers might be led to open a volume of Miłosz’s poetry.  

Milosz accepts his award and shakes the presenter's hand.
Czesław Miłosz accepting the Nobel Prize, 1980. From the Czesław Miłosz Papers. (Click the picture to view a gallery.)

Czesław Miłosz’s long life (1911-2004) spanned nearly all of the past century, and the circumstances of that life brought him in contact with the century’s most destructive currents. Born in a village in the Lithuanian countryside, the young Miłosz traveled the Russian Empire with his father, a noble officer in the czar’s army. He studied law at the centuries-old university in Wilno (present-day Vilnius), an ethnically mixed center of the interwar Polish republic. This environment, with its diversity of languages, literatures, religions, and ideas, had profound effect on Miłosz, and Wilno remained throughout his life the ideal of what Europe could be.

He spent most of the war years in Warsaw, contributing as a writer and editor to underground publications. Day-to-day existence under the German occupation plunged Miłosz into spiritual crisis, and he edged back toward the Catholic faith of his youth. Immediately after the war, he served in the Paris embassy of the Polish government and watched from this safe distance as the Iron Curtain came down over his homeland. He chose to remain in the West, staying first in Paris and then moving in 1960 to Berkeley. Miłosz’s literary reputation in the West was first established with his volume The Captive Mind (1953), one of the earliest exposés of communist oppression in Europe. Other prose works followed – essays, an autobiographical novel, a portrait of his native Lithuania, a history of Polish literature, the diary of a year of his life – but it was for his poetry, written in Polish, that Miłosz earned the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.

Miłosz’s career as a poet had begun in 1931, as a law student in Wilno, with a 20-year-old’s visions of civilization on the brink of catastrophe, a scene of “machines throbbing, quicker than the heart,” of “lopped-off heads,” of red banners and military trains (“Artificer,” 1931). A decade later in Warsaw, Miłosz saw this vision come to life. His wartime poetry offers scenes of the end of the world. But it was not an end announced with thunder and trumpets. Instead, the end came while the world tended to its business. People remained absorbed in their individual lives, oblivious to the cosmic events around them. “No one believes it is happening now,” he wrote in 1944 (“A Song on the End of the World”). Even those living amidst the carnage did not understand its weight:

They are dragging a guy by his stupid legs,
The calves in silk socks,
The head trailing behind.
And a stain in the sand a month of rain won’t wash away.
Children with toy automatic pistols
Take a look, resume their play.

–“Songs of Adrian Zielinski” (1943-44)

In his wartime writing, Miłosz wrestled with the responsibility of being a poet at the end of the world. What was his task? Was it possible to write verse that met the moral challenge of his times? “What is poetry that does not save/ Nations or people?” he asked.

A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.

–“Dedication” (1945)

Miłosz returned to this question throughout the next five decades. Many times he repeated the lament that his duty, the duty of a poet in the 20th century, was too great a burden. In “Preparation,” published in 1984, four years after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, Miłosz confessed his inability to write the words that the century demanded.

Still one more year of preparation.
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was….

No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked with heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.

–“Preparation” (1984)

In this struggle with his duty as a poet, which was for him a struggle of vocation, Miłosz recognized that the proper response to the tragedies of the 20th century was not simply a matter of depicting bodies broken in violence. His poetry does speak of acts of violence with the authority and immediacy of a witness. But more importantly, Miłosz’s writing pierces through and looks beyond the carnage of such scenes. Yes, that man bulldozed into a mass grave was the child of a woman, a boy clutching a teddy bear or a toy truck, an infant birthed in tears and conceived in a moment of delight. Miłosz understood that this was the tragedy, that a mother’s beloved child would come to this end, with a crushed skull, alone at the bottom of a pit.

The tragedy of his century was not the ridiculous corpse being dragged over the gravel. It was the children undisturbed by such a sight. How many times have we seen that image, boys with their own toys guns, stoic witnesses to the violence around them? It has been repeated so many times that we pass it over. But Miłosz’s lines from Warsaw remind us that there is a cosmic incongruity in seeing children so inured to violence. In a century that brought unprecedented human destruction, so many catalogues of body counts, a poet like Miłosz was needed, someone who observed firsthand the turmoil of history but who also had the clarity of vision to recognize that, in the turmoil, there were matters far greater than death.

Black and white photo of two young boys with their nanny.
Czesław Miłosz as a child with his brother Andrzej and their nanny Antosia, circa 1917. From the Czesław Miłosz Papers. (Click the picture to view a gallery.)

In perceiving the deeper tragedies of the past century, Miłosz also recognized that he was witnessing the definitive end to patterns of life, to communities, to ways of thinking about and understanding the world that had been passed down for centuries. He had experienced these traditions as a boy growing up in Lithuania, where he moved in the villages of pre-modern Europe and the refined company of the aristocratic age. Like the violence of 1944 Warsaw, the disappearance of these worlds was cause for mourning. In 1968, that most turbulent year of the postwar era, Miłosz looked from Berkeley back to an age extinguished by industry, war, and revolution – as well as by the expectation that man would be enthroned as God:

Unexpressed, untold….
Retinues of homespun, velveteen skirts,
Giggles above a railing, pigtails askew,
Sittings on chamberpots upstairs,
When the sledge jingles under the columns of the porch
Just before the mustachioed ones in wolf fur enter.
Female humanity,
Children’s snot, legs spread apart,
Snarled hair, the milk boiling over,
Stench, shit frozen into clods.
And those centuries, conceiving in the herring smell of the middle of the night
Instead of playing something like a game of chess
Or dancing an intellectual ballet.
And palisades,
And pregnant sheep,
And pigs, fast eaters and poor eaters,
And cows cured by incantations.

–“City Without a Name” (1968)

Here we see the sensuality of Miłosz’s poetry: his longing to reveal – and preserve – the elusive details of a whole reality, of worlds existing only in fading memory. In its 1980 Nobel citation, the Swedish Academy highlighted this element of Miłosz’s verse, his reveling in the simple delights of this world. He wrote as if surprised by these delights, finding in the small details of the physical world things to be loved and cherished. But more than that, the memory or imagining of these artifacts – and their reconstruction in verse – opened a connection to, and bulwark around, distant traditions and fellowships. In drawing to himself the reality of his past, the Academy stated, Miłosz sought, “a defense against the destructive forces that hold sway in the world to which we are delivered against our will.”

Miłosz’s effort at building a defense is evident in his 1995 poem “Capri,” a meditation by the then-80-year-old poet on the long span of his life, from the villages of his youth, separated from each other by day-long carriage rides, to the world of the late 20th century. “I am a child who received First Communion in Wilno and afterwards drinks cocoa served by zealous Catholic ladies,” the poem begins. “I am an old man who remembers that day in June.” The memory of that distant celebration is bright, illuminated by the “sinless, white tablecloth.” But the darkness of Miłosz’s century is just over the horizon, and it will overwhelm the joyful scenes of his youth.

Of my century, in which, and not in any other, I was ordered to be born, to work, to leave a trace.

Those Catholic ladies existed, after all, and if I returned there now, identical but with another consciousness, I would look intensely at their faces, trying to prevent their fading away.

Miłosz the poet admits that, early in life, he had not looked intensely enough. He had been foolish. Still, he can capture moments from those years: the rumps of horses pulling carriages, huts without chimneys set deep in pine forests. Then he is an old man, flying from San Francisco to Rome, tended by civilized stewardesses, on his way to a grand celebration, whose participants do not believe in Heaven and Hell but only in proofs of the flesh, “a tumor in the breast, blood in the urine, high blood pressure.” He will soon depart this world, Miłosz acknowledges. He and his age will become as phantoms. But, before he leaves, he must again face the question: What does he have to show for himself, as a poet of the 20th century?

If I accomplished anything, it was only when I, a pious boy, chased after the disguises of the lost Reality.

After the real presence of divinity in our flesh and blood which are at the same time bread and wine.

Hearing the immense call of the Particular, despite the earthly law that sentences memory to extinction.

Miłosz answered the call of the Particular. As the Swedish Academy pointed out, the poet embraced the substance of everyday life, the details of concrete reality. These objects and words and faces and gestures, these are the stuff of lifetimes, of existence. For Miłosz, the artifacts of life were the Catholic ladies in Wilno, the huts in the Lithuanian forest, the riverside where he caught two young lovers. Yet we are not simply the sums of these individual particulars. There is a cohesive force which binds the varied particulars of our separate lives and connects us, mysteriously, with the Universal. We are created beings. We are, in Miłosz’s words, “the king’s children” (“Elegy for Y.Z.,” 1986).

As I read Miłosz’s declaration, “My Lord, I loved strawberry jam” (“A Confession,” 1985), his beholding of a translucent apple tree from his window, his memory of parking the car by a yellow bicycle leaning against a tree, as I read his remembrances of Caffé Greco in Rome and Rue Descartes in Paris, of the long-johns he wore as a child, of Wilno during his student days, as I read these lines, I recognize his regret at being unable to capture, to caress these moments and faces in their complete light. There is the sting of our temporal, fractured existence. But there is also a hint of joy in recording those details, whether vivid or commonplace. A principal theme of Miłosz’s theology in verse is the intertwining of the Particular and the Universal, of our created lives with the Creator. Miłosz understood that in apprehending the simplicity and beauty of those small things, the substance of our lives, we discover a pinhole opening to eternity.

Miłosz’s struggle against the earthly law that extinguishes memory is a struggle that grips us all. I see in Miłosz’s constant doubt – his fear that he had failed to look, to gather, to comprehend the particulars of his life – a general caution. In the last century, the instruments of that earthly law were occupying armies, brutal violence, the tumult of exile. In our time the instruments might be even more effective at blunting our memories, our individuality. We believe that tablet computers, smartphones, and social-media profiles serve better to preserve our particulars, our “cherished moments.” In truth, those aids can cause us to fail to look intensely enough. We lose sight of the Particular, which, as Miłosz testifies, can open to the Universal.

Bruce Berglund’s area of focus in his doctoral studies was East European and Russian history.  He is editor of The Allrounder​, an online journal that features the writing of academics and journalists on sports, society, and culture.”

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