Miłosz, Czesław

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Miłosz, Czesław

Czesław Miłosz (chĕs´wäf mē´wŏsh), 1911–2004, poet, essayist, and novelist, b. Szetejnie, Lithuania (then in Russia). Widely considered the greatest contemporary Polish poet, Miłosz was born into an ethnically Polish family, studied law in Vilnius and literature in Paris, lived in Warsaw during World War II, joined (1946) the diplomatic service, and in 1951 gained political asylum from Communist Poland while he was a cultural attaché in France. He lived in the United States from 1960, when he began teaching at the Univ. of California, Berkeley, until 1989, when he returned to a non-Communist Poland. He began writing verse in 1931, developing his own distinctive poetic voice some five years later. Although fluent in a number of languages, he wrote in his native Polish throughout his career. The main source of his early poetry was the Lithuanian countryside of his youth, which also figures prominently in his autobiographical novel The Issa Valley (1955, tr. 1981). Often tragic and ironic, his poetry was profoundly affected by World War II and, later, by the Communist dictatorship in Poland. He has been characterized as a poet of exile, memory, and witness, and much of his mature verse and many of his essays are modest yet profound meditations on the fate of humanity and culture in a fallen world. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.

His best-known prose work, The Captive Mind (1953, tr. 1955), is an essay collection that studies the spiritual condition of society under Stalinist totalitarianism. He is also well known for the novel The Seizure of Power (tr. 1955) and the long poem A Treatise on Poetry (1957, tr. 2001). Among his many other works are the classically styled verse of Bells in Winter (tr. 1978), Provinces (tr. 1991), New and Collected Poems, 1931–2001 (tr. 2001), and the posthumously published Second Space (2004). His work also includes History of Polish Literature (1969, 2d ed. 1983); and the essay collections Emperor of the Earth (1977), Visions from San Francisco Bay (tr. 1982), The Witness of Poetry (tr. 1983), and Beginning with My Streets (1985, tr. 1991).

See his Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition (1968), A Year of the Hunter (1994), and the partially autobiographical Milosz's ABC's (2001); E. Czarnecka and A. Fiut, ed., Conversations with Czesław Miłosz (1987); R. Faggen, ed., Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czesłelaw Miłosz (1997); studies by D. Davie (1986), E. Mozejko, ed. (1988), A. Fiut (1990), and L. Nathan and A. Quinn (1991).

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