Czeslaw Milosz was Born in Szetejnie, Lithuania in 1911. Fleeing Communist Poland in 1951 he wrote extensively as an émigré in the west. His writings and poetry deal extensively with the rise and consequences of totalitarianism. For his poetry, the Nobel Prize committee awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.
Czeslaw Milosz was brought up in Lithuania to a family with an ancient lineage, stretching back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a medieval state that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It was noted for its religious and cultural tolerance and Czeslaw Milosz often wistfully referred to this idealised time, when art could flourish undisturbed by adverse political consequences.
As a young man, he became interested in writing and became part of a modern movement seeking to revitalise Polish literature. However, his literary career was interrupted by the Nazi occupation. As a committed Socialist Czeslaw took part in activities of the resistance, engaged in fighting the Nazi occupation of Poland. After the war, he became an important representative of the Polish government.
However, he became increasingly disenchanted with the totalitarian nature of the Stalinist State and in 1951 he made the bold decision to leave Poland and seek exile in the West. Some left-wingers such as Pablo Neruda criticised his decision (2), and Milosz himself felt some kind of guilt for forsaking his countrymen. (He was very happy to be able to return to Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989). However, initially, the Americans were suspicious of someone who had served for so long in a Communist government. Therefore for 9 years, he lived in Paris. Initially, he was quite poor but he was befriended by Albert Camus and he was soon able to work on his writings and poetry. In 1960 he was able to travel to America where he worked as a lecturer on Polish literature at Berkeley University in California
In 1973 he was able to have his writings translated into English for the first time. It was the American Poet Laureate, Robert Hass who translated his works, bring Czeslaw Milosz into the remit of English speaking intellectuals.
In his own words, Czeslaw Milosz referred to himself as “an ecstatic pessimist”. This in part reflects the duality of his writings and outlook on life. By nature, he was open-minded, kind and generous but throughout his life was confronted with the evils of totalitarianism being forced to flee his country of birth. However, it was his capacity to reveal the real nature of totalitarianism that led to some of his greatest works. His most well-known novel is “The Captive Mind”, in this book Mr Milosz deals with totalitarian ideology and also its unexpected appeal to many, even intellectuals. It is characteristic of many of his writings – hard-hitting and thought-provoking.
But at the same time as his political writings, he was also capable of writings, which sensitively dealt with issues such as immortality and love. Using imagery of an idealised past he created scenes of beauty and tenderness. In writing his Nobel citation the committee wrote of Czeslaw Milosz:
“who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts.“
– Nobel Citation
“His writing is many-voiced and dramatic, insistent and provocative. This is true not only of his poetry but also of his prose – the novels, the analyses and, in every sense of the word, the many-sided essays which perhaps have been overlooked in favour of his poetry.” (1)
Returning to Poland in 1989 Czeslaw Milosz was feted as one of Poland’s leading intellectual figures. His words were used to describe a monument at the Gdansk shipyard. Honouring Polish workers who had been shot by the Communist regime. The monument was described with these words by Milosz
“Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.”
Czeslaw Milosz died at his home in Krakow on Saturday 14 August 2004.
By: R.Pettinger 28/11/06
- Photo Top of Czeslaw Milosz – Dennis Wile Photography
- Nobel Prize committee
- Economist profile of Czeslaw Milosz
- Czeslaw Milosz at Amazon.com
- Official website – (in polish)
- Czeslaw Milosz at Poets.org
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