Born June 30, 1911, in Szetejnie, Lithuania; died August 14, 2004, in Krakow, Poland. Poet. One of the most eminent poets to emerge from Eastern Europe's troubled twentieth-century landscape, Czeslaw Milosz (pronounced CHESS-wahf MEE-wosh) fled Poland as Soviet-style communism took root there, but returned as a literary legend as he neared his eightieth birthday. Milosz's astounding output, which included volumes of verse, essays, and criticism, mark him as one of his country's most prolific chroniclers of its tragic—but ultimately triumphant—modern era, but the quality of his work made him one of Poland's rare Nobel Prize recipients in literature, which he was awarded in 1980.
Milosz was born in what is technically Lithuania, which was part of Imperial Russia at the time but included a large Polish population, which had also been subsumed into Russia's empire's borders. He was born on June 30, 1911, in the town of Szetejnie, where his Polish-speaking family was living at the time. Trouble came a few years later, when World War I broke out; Milosz's father, a civil engineer, was drafted into the tsar's army, and the family had to flee encroaching German troops a number of times. After the war, they settled in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital which Milosz would later describe as "a city of clouds resembling Baroque architecture and of Baroque architecture like coagulated clouds" according to his Times of London obituary. He began writing poetry in his teens, and was fascinated by the sciences as well; he spurned both of these to study law, but won a scholarship to study literature in Paris thanks to a distant relative, Oscar Milosz, a respected poet.
Milosz's earliest verse was somewhat apocalyptic in its themes, and this type of poetry came to be grouped under the "Catastrophist" school of the 1930s. Much of the doom foretold by this generation, literary critics note, did indeed come to pass. In Poland, those horrors began in earnest with Nazi Germany's invasion in 1939; Milosz was working for Polish state radio in Warsaw at the time, and fled to Romania. He went to Vilnius—by then under Soviet occupation—and eventually returned to German-controlled Warsaw after a perilous trip. There, he worked with the anti-German resistance movement, and served as a poetry editor for an underground publisher. Some of his most moving poems, such as "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto," chronicle the tragedies of this period, including the walling off of Warsaw's Jews into a ghetto, where countless died.
After World War II, Milosz worked for the Polish embassy in New York City, and was later posted to Paris. He still wrote, but was wary of the new cultural dictates from Poland's Communist regime. Artistic output, according to the party line, should conform to certain political ideals, and this included new literary works. When he learned in 1951 that he was about to be detained, he sought political asylum in France. His landmark 1953 work, The Captive Mind, argued that doctrinaire authoritarian regimes stifle intellectual output. In it, he provided thinly disguised case histories that recounted the brainwashing tactics used on some leading Polish cultural icons in recent years. Milosz was not hesitant about criticizing the left in the West, either: in other writings and interviews, he mocked the French left's flirtation with communism and its adoration of Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin. Some of this was retributive: he had arrived in France as a political exile, and was virtually destitute; prominent figures of the left-leaning literary world treated him coolly, and he had a difficult time finding a publisher during these years.
Milosz left France when the University of California offered him a professorship. After 1961, he taught Slavic languages and literature at the university's vibrant Berkeley campus, where his classes were popular with several generations of students. He became an American citizen, but still wrote his poems in Polish. The epic "Gdzie slonce wschodzi I kedy zapada" (From the Rising of the Sun), from 1974, is considered one of his best works, and was part of an impressive body of work that brought him the 1980 Nobel Prize in literature.
By the end of that decade, Communism in Poland had retreated, and Milosz was able to return. He was hailed as national literary icon, a voice of Poland's conscience, and spent the remainder of his years in Krakow, where he died at the age of 93 on August 14, 2004. Married twice, he was twice widowed, but sons Anthony and John Peter with first wife Janina Dluska, who endured the Warsaw Nazi occupation with him, survive him.
When he was still quite young, Milosz wrote of the fragility of life, from the vantage point of a Pole enjoying a heady sojourn in 1935 Paris. This particular poem, partly reprinted in his Times of London obituary, seems all the more poignant for all the near-brushes with death or oblivion that its author would subsequently endure. "Roll on, rivers; raise your hands / cities! I, a faithful son of the black earth, shall return to the black earth. / as if my life had not been, / as if not my heart, not my blood, / not my duration / had created words and songs / but an unknown, impersonal voice, / only the flapping of waves, only the choir of winds / and the autumnal sway / of the tall trees."
Guardian (London), August 16, 2004, p. 17.
Independent (London), August 16, 2004, p. 30.
New York Times, August 15, 2004, p. A41.
Times (London), August 16, 2004, p. 24.