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Between Fire and SleepEssays on Modern Polish Poetry and Prose$

Jaroslaw Anders

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780300111675

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300111675.001.0001

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Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz

A Testament of Exile

(p.67) Czeslaw Milosz
Between Fire and Sleep
Jaroslaw Anders
Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the life and works of Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. Born in 1911, Milosz had seen it all: genocidal wars, revolutions, whole countries violently erased or slowly fading from the map, and the rise and ebb of ideologies, philosophies, religions. His writing, especially his poetry, may be viewed as an attempt to reclaim the innocent ability to wonder and trust. One of the best examples is his early cycle of short poems “The World,” written during the war, which recreated the secure and radiant world of a child.

Keywords:   Polish poets, poetry, The World, Polish literature

Nobody could tell the story of this age better than Czeslaw Milosz, the master of eccentric vision. He was born in 1911, and he had seen it all: genocidal wars, revolutions, whole countries violently erased or slowly fading from the map, the rise and ebb of ideologies, philosophies, religions. Growing up between the two world wars in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, with its Polish and Lithuanian nationalisms and the long shadow of Soviet expansionism, Milosz joined a group of Marxist-leaning “catastrophist” poets, Zagary. Their visions of mass terror and annihilation, taken by their elders for a literary pose, were soon surpassed by reality. Later, in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Milosz published in clandestine literary periodicals, wrote essays on the rise of modern sensibility, conducted a learned correspondence on the crisis of Christianity with his friend Jerzy Andrzejewski (both the wartime essays and the letters were published in English as Legends of Modernity), and translated Jacques Maritain, Shakespeare, and T. S. Eliot.1

After the war, Milosz spent his days in the diplomatic service of communist Poland but devoted his nights to writing a series of poems called “Daylight.” Their mixture of moral seriousness and ironic distance became for Polish poets the standard idiom of dignity, a form of aesthetic resistance against the stream of official lies. One of the poems from this series, “You Who Have (p.68) Wronged,” written in Washington in 1950, was later selected by Solidarity to be inscribed on the monument to Gdansk shipyard workers killed during the protests of 1970. Its classical form—in Polish it consists of two eleven-syllable quatrains, a tercet, and a couplet, linked by an intricate rhyming pattern—underscores its steel-cold message:

  • Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
  • You kill one, but another is born
  • The words are written down, the dead, the date.
  • And you'd have done better with a morning dawn
  • A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.2

After breaking with the communists and emigrating to France in 1951, where he was accepted neither by the progressive French intellectuals nor by the conservative Polish émigrés, Milosz survived in monastic poverty and worked on what would become his best-known book of prose, The Captive Mind, a study of intellectual acquiescence in communism.3 In 1961 he moved to California, where he accepted the professorship in Slavic literatures at the University of California in Berkeley and watched with curiosity the inanity of American consumerism and the budding youth counterculture. But there, too, he remained faithful to the “estate of Polish literature,” claiming (in his case, a little exaggeratedly) that “communing outside a shared language, a shared history” is impossible.4 A lifelong nomad and a perpetual stranger, Milosz seems addicted to looking at things from unordinary perspectives. A Nobel laureate much celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, he preferred to keep himself off balance well into the ninth decade of his life (p.69) by shuttling between Berkeley and Krakow, a beloved Polish city where he settled for good when his legendary robust health finally started to fail.

He has written about all this, with eloquence and force, in his essays, but also, indirectly, in his wonderfully condensed, intricate poems. Yet several years before his death in 2004 he offered a book that opens as an invitation to revisit, once again, the remembered landscapes of his life. “I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province, in a two-horse wagon with a lot of fodder and a tin bucket rattling in the back,” he writes in the opening passage of Road-Side Dog.5 “It was so interesting to be moving, to give the horses their rein, and wait until, in the next valley, a village slowly appeared, or a park with the white spot of a manor in it. And always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in its duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its end.”

Road-Side Dog is a strange book and in many ways a disappointing book—at least for those who expect from the author nothing but large historical vistas and intellectual distillation of the century. It is a book of fragments, snippets even, greatly diverse in form and in subject. It contains maxims, anecdotes, meditations, crumbs of worldly wisdom, introspections, shreds of theological and philosophical argument, poems. Some of these morsels are perfectly finished, self-contained miniature tracts, in the mode of the French pensée; others appear sketchy, tentative, even commonplace: assertions in search of proof, thoughts that should become essays, plotlines that need to be tested in a novel. Is this the writer's scrapbook offered generously—but also a little self-indulgently—to his readers, the (p.70) literary equivalent of a rummage sale? But perhaps because of its loose, haphazard form, the book also sheds quite a bit of light on Milosz's lifetime fascinations, animosities, peeves, quarrels, visions, and misconceptions—everything, in short, that explains his greatness and some of his famous weaknesses. It is a small but important book—the closest thing we have to Milosz's literary testament.

Although Milosz declares himself an enemy of vain and pointless “literatures of confession,” and his poetic self is usually that of an external, ironic observer, some of his most moving meditations in the book refer—discreetly, indirectly—to his personal experience of growing old. This happens also to be the theme of his book of poetry Facing the River, inspired by his first—since 1938—visit to his native Lithuania and published a few years before Road-Side Dog. In the long poem called “Capri” in Facing the River “a rejoicing and banqueting humanity” invites the speaker “to take part in the festivity of incessant renewal,” but voices from his Lithuanian past demand a closing of accounts and call him back to the point of his departure, which may be also the point of conclusion. In Road-Side Dog, this tug between gravity and lightness is voiced in a lucid prose haiku: “Weakness of old age yet in my dreams wanderings in the mountains without effort, as in the poem by Po Chü-I, in which he, an old man, suddenly transformed in a dream, walks effortlessly with his stick.” Later he adds, in an even more mystical tone, “Again I was flying in my dream. As if my old body contained, prior to live beings, the possibility of all movements, flying, swimming, crawling, running.”

We are soon reminded, however, that what we are hearing is (p.71) not self-pity, but the reflection of a poet trying to sum up his past “taken as no more than a commentary to a couple of poems.” In this stock taking, the physical and the sensual must not be omitted because they exist in a symbiotic, and sometimes embarrassing, relationship with the spiritual: “Poetry cannot be separated from awareness of our body. It soars above it, immaterial and at the same time captive, and is a reason for our uneasiness, for it pretends to belong to a separate zone, of spirit.”

The double status of poetry, which seems to belong to the realm of the spiritual and to the realm of the material, is one of Milosz's recurrent motifs. He regards the act of writing poetry as a dubious occupation—a constant effort of the soul to overreach itself. The poet, and the artist more generally, is someone flawed, not completely adult, “not healthy, even if we confess it with difficulty.” The luminosity of poetry, its “clear, solid, concise, nearly classical quality,” has, in his view, a dark and dangerous source: it issues from “sorrow, grief, self-reproach, regret, shame, anxiety, desperation.” This darker shadow of poetry, warns Milosz, should be treated with respect, never denied or hidden too deeply under the mask of overconfident form, lest the poet bring upon himself “the vengeance of the spinners of Fate.”

Those who are familiar with Milosz's reverence for historical memory—his almost antiquarian love of old names and places, obscure facts, and cryptic historical references with which he fills many of his poems—will be surprised to read in a fragment called “Alexandria” that there may already be too much memory in the world. We live in an epoch, he remarks, “which is (p.72) unable to forget anything.” “Museums, libraries, photographs, reproductions, film archives. And amid that abundance individuals who do not realize that around them an omnipresent memory hovers and besieges, attacks their tiny consciousness.” The author seems to caution that in an age when everything is mechanically recorded and instantly available, memory grows unstructured, haphazard, and eventually insignificant. Experience becomes an exercise in cross-referencing, a text engendered by endless other texts.

In another fragment of the book called “Archaeology,” multitudes of past generations and cultures, swarms of departed souls, “move in unreal space, incessantly astonished by the rites, manners, and appearance of their successors, just as we would have been astonished if we'd been able to meet them.” History, especially when it is considered in such extreme condensation, in a foreshortened millennial perspective, offends us with meaninglessness. This lack of scheme or direction, in turn, provokes a feverish, obsessive, often fallacious search for a meaning: “Something must correspond to something, something must result from something. Perhaps so that things just plain stupid and dishonest find an explanation.”

Marxism, says Milosz, was just such an act of “inserting meaning” into history and more specifically into the history of the nineteenth century—an effort that spilled into the twentieth century with most unfortunate results. And “inserting meaning” into history is also the essence of utopian thinking, which is always more about the onerous present than about the radiant future. That is why Utopia is likely to remain a permanent feature of our imagined world. For Milosz, therefore, our (p.73) present moment, marked as it is by a conspicuous lack of theories expounding the meaning or purpose of history, is exceptional and rather unsettling. Who knows what utopias wait around the corner?

The question of meaning—not only in history, but also in art, literature, and religion—is at the center of the question of modernity, which preoccupied Milosz from the beginning of his literary career. One of his most significant poems, “Treatise on Poetry,” is a kind of versified history of the modern sensibility, from the decadence and dandyism of the turn of the twentieth century, through the spiritual and moral devastation of the two great European wars, to the embarrassing prostration of the twentieth-century thinking classes before the god of Historical Necessity. In Road-Side Dog, especially in the longer fragment called “Discreet Charm of Nihilism,” Milosz writes similarly about two fundamental premises of modernity.

The first baleful premise is the “scientific paradigm,” which has reduced the universe to “mathematical necessity.” The second baleful premise is Nietzsche's proclamation that “there is no true world,” which has undermined our trust in objective reality, including the reality of beauty and goodness. After such a pronouncement, Milosz suggests, the question what? has lost its meaning in both ethics and aesthetics and has been replaced by a ceaseless how? We have become “indifferent to content and react, not even to form, but to technique, to technical efficiency itself.” Taken together, these claims created a world that Milosz considers hostile to spiritual aspirations. In one of the little fictional narratives in Road-Side Dog, even Darwin ponders the metaphysical consequences of the modern pattern (p.74) of ideas and is forced to conclude that the “theology that can be drawn from it is nothing but that of the devil's chaplain.”

The heart of the problem, Milosz seems to believe, is less the substance of such ideas than their democratization in our times: the phenomenon that may be called “trickle-down nihilism.” “First, a fringe of the aristocracy cultivating literature and art, elegant, freed from the coarser superstitions. And churches filled with the pious, the scent of their incense and their prayers. They would come to a common frame of mind. It would take a hundred and fifty years.” This, according to Milosz, is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves today. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was an act of courage to pronounce the relativity of values and the illusory character of “objective” reality. Now it takes courage to dissent from those views.

Though clothed in beautiful metaphors and personal insights, this is a rather conventional line in the criticism of modernity and one that in our times appears less and less convincing. Outside of university seminars, radical nihilism is hardly the orthodoxy of the day. Churches in the Western world may no longer be full of the pious, but in America at least religious discourse and religious dogma make a triumphant return to public life and education, often in their most insidious, obscurantist form. If popular culture is any indication, we still prefer to see virtue rewarded and vice punished. Most members of modern societies, instead of wallowing in aristocratic decadence, work sixty hours a week, worry about their children's future, and live by the same unreflective, cautious, pragmatic (p.75) moral code that has been typical of the toiling classes in all eras. The invention of the crisis of modernity—the radical division between then and now—appears to be yet another modern fallacy that confuses the history of ideas with history as such.

Luckily, Milosz is able to move beyond the household complaint about modern relativism. Premodern societies, he continues, derived their strength from the religious outlook that provided man with the sense of a special place and a special responsibility in the order of things. What troubles the Polish poet, however, is less the dissipation of the idea of God than the disappearance of the familiar images associated with religious systems. The premodern world was rooted not only, or not primarily, in theological doctrine, but in an iconography that organized the outer life and the inner life. If there was a “modern cataclysm,” then, it happened mainly in the realm of imagination. “What has been lost,” Milosz asserts, is the “vertical axis” that “rules everywhere in the non-corporeal” and “allows for a movement up to better incarnations, or down to inferior incarnations.” Put differently, the spiritual destructiveness of the scientific worldview consists in undermining the old anthropocentric representation of the world and replacing it with inhuman, nihilistic imagery.

Yet Milosz observes that the new imagery could not completely win. Subconsciously, people have never relinquished their longing for the old images and notions. One of the consequences was a kind of vacillating imagination, which Milosz sees as largely responsible for the European Romantic movement, and which is the main subject of his most openly mystical (p.76) book, The Land of Ulro. Taking as his main metaphor William Blake's mythical country of the dispossessed, the poet traces a sequence of desperate—often bizarre—efforts by some of the most imaginative modern minds to close the gap between the deep human need for mystery and the naturalistic flatness of the scientific worldview. He is fascinated by and feels affinity with everything that happens at the “frontier where religious and scientific imagination skirmished.” In The Land of Ulro, for example, he describes how nondenominational mysticism drew liberally from the traditions of Christian Gnosticism, Jewish Cabala, and the occult, and how after the seeming defeats of organized religion a “second line of defense” was being formed by such visionary thinkers as Emanuel Swedenborg, Blake, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Milosz's own writing, especially his poetry, may be viewed as an attempt to counter this destruction by reclaiming the innocent ability to wonder and trust. One of the best examples is his early cycle of short poems “The World,” written during the war, in which, by recreating the secure and radiant world of a child, he tries to restore a sacred kingdom in which “Faith is in you whenever you look / At a dewdrop or a floating leaf / And know that they are because they have to be,” and “Hope is with you when you believe / The earth is not a dream but living flesh.” In this sense, Milosz is right to call his work “essentially religious.” “Instead of leaving to theologians their worries,” he observes in Road-Side Dog,

I have constantly meditated on religion…. In my lifetime Heaven and Hell disappeared, the belief in life after death was (p.77) considerably weakened, the borderline between man and animals, once so clear, ceased to be obvious under the impact of the theory of evolution, the notion of absolute truth lost its supreme position, history directed by Providence started to look like a field of battle between blind forces. After two thousand years in which a huge edifice of creeds and dogmas has been erected, from Origen and Saint Augustine to Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman, when every work of the human mind and of human hands was created within a system of reference, the age of homelessness has dawned.

Again, a skeptic may object that in all likelihood a vast majority of people of all ages have lived in much more humble spiritual homes than those envisioned by Milosz. How, really, can we be sure about the real “contents of their imagination”? Besides, it takes a high degree of spiritual awareness to feel spiritually homeless in these times or any times.

Still, Milosz has no doubt about the need to reconstruct a more hospitable spiritual space for the human mind. This need has its root, he says, in our stubborn and seemingly illogical disagreement with the natural conditions of existence: suffering, death, injustice. “An atheist should accept the world as it is,” he writes. “But then whence comes our protest, our scream: ‘No!’ Precisely this excludes us from Nature, determines our incomprehensible oddity, makes us a lonely species. Here, in a moral protest against the order of the world, in our asking ourselves where this scream of horror comes from, the defense of the peculiar place of man begins.” And elsewhere in the book he remarks, “To recognize the world as ordinary is beyond strength. For me it is magnificent and horrible, impossible to (p.78) bear. Everything indicates that either it was created by the devil or, as it is now, is the result of a primordial catastrophe. In the second case, the death on the cross of a divine Redeemer acquires full meaning.”

In Road-Side Dog, Milosz wanders comfortably and freely among religious concepts and beliefs. He tries to breach the gap dividing consciousness and nature: “The mind would have been without grace had it not been anchored in matter: slaughterhouses, hospitals, cemeteries, pornographic films.” He looks for systems in which the physical does not exhaust the possibility of Being, in which there is not nothing after death, in which human deeds are “imperishable” and good and evil have objective meaning.

Milosz is attracted to the austere abstraction of Buddhism. He dreams about a possible change within the scientific paradigm that would permit humankind to return to a more humane and humanist vision of the universe. He even quotes with curiosity a rather scary version of the intelligent design theory, in which the universe appears as a sort of game board, an experiment, or a simulation run by some superior beings. This view, as Milosz half-seriously remarks, would vindicate the polytheistic religions of antiquity, proving that the Greeks “had an intuitive grasp of the distance separating our will from a higher sort of calculation, indifferent to our desires and laments.”

As if by an irresistible gravity of tradition, however, Milosz always returns to the Roman Catholicism of his upbringing. “I am grateful for that day,” he writes, “when in a wooden little church between huge oaks I was admitted to the Roman Catholic Church. As well as for my long life, so that, believing or not (p.79) believing, I could meditate on two thousand years of my history. That history was diabolic, no less than heavenly.” His quarrel with Catholicism seems to be mostly political and temperamental. “I did not call myself a Catholic,” he wrote in Native Realm, his autobiography, “because the word had such a definite political coloring in Poland. Besides, it would have been false if applied to me, considering my untamed, biological individualism. Nonetheless, I had brought from high school a knowledge of the abysses which, after all, would have to be fathomed sometime.”6

But apart from that, Catholicism, with its two millennia of not always inspiring magisterium, with its rich cultural heritage and elaborate theological and philosophical dogma, remains for Milosz a valid framework for the exploration of his “doubts, turmoil, and despair.” It also allows something like a second line of defense. For those who have been denied grace of faith, it offers Pascal's wager, or the agnostic's road to salvation: “What do we have to lose?”

Indeed, despite its medieval trappings and its seemingly immutable doctrines, the Roman Church has become a surprisingly welcoming sanctuary for modern agnostics and religious fellow travelers. In a fragment called “A Philosopher,” Milosz presents an approving portrait of just such a person—an intellectual who describes himself as an atheist and who “would not seek in the existence of the universe any signs indicating its first cause.” And yet he also cherishes religion as the fullest expression of “splendor and all the dignity of man”—especially religion, “in which the opposition between man and the natural order of things was the most marked, in which, therefore, (p.80) man by liberating himself from that order achieved salvation.” Convinced that civilization is in mortal danger, the philosopher decides to side, at least in his public statements, with the moral exhortations of the Vatican, or, in his own words, “to be counted among the workers in the Lord's vineyard.” A nonbeliever, perhaps, but a godly nonbeliever.

On the one side, the “unfathomable depths”; on the other side, a moral ethos, a didactic program that can apparently function even without the element of faith: Milosz's Catholicism seems to be a versatile system. It is perhaps too versatile for those who wish to confront their belief, or their disbelief, unflinchingly, to meet the terms of the contract without looking for loopholes even when the consequences become uncomfortable. Milosz's meditations on religion also seek to show that life without some metaphysical dimension is practically unthinkable. He is unable, in other words, to imagine a true atheist—an individual who is convinced that the universe with God at its center is even more frightening, rife with contradictions, and absurd than a universe of “mathematical necessity.” This sort of radical atheism always was a minority view, though it has a grandeur of its own as well as an ancient and noble pedigree. By not giving it a proper hearing, Milosz misses an important part of the puzzle—which is also his puzzle—of the millennia-long struggle of man with the concept of transcendence.

In some of his essays Milosz can sound like an angry prophet, impatient with his listeners' lazy materialism and their seeming disregard for the “great issues of humanity”: the essence of reality, the nature of God, the meaning of history. His anger and passion sometimes make him restate those issues with almost (p.81) dogmatic rigidity. But a closer look at his writing, especially his poetry, shows that searching for articles of faith—even his own, highly personal faith—is never really the main goal of his imaginative journeys. His last poems seem to alternate between fervent prayers to the Unknown and mischievous dissections of theological paradoxes and contradictions. In the last of his great poetic “treatises,” “Treatise on Theology,” he declares he does not wish to end his life as “a possessor of truth” and shrugs off “the serenity of faith” as “merely self-satisfaction.” But he insists, not unlike another “atheistic Catholic,” George Santayana, that humans' need to believe unverifiable truths seems to be rooted in their imaginative faculties. Nobody lives in the objective world, only in a world filtered through imagination, which can fashion the world into a home as well as a prison or a place of torment.

One of Milosz's poems in Road-Side Dog is a parable about a primitive tribe which, in between its slaughters and bloody rituals, polishes for generations a piece of granite into a huge, perfectly spherical ball:

  • What did it mean to them? The opposite
  • Of everything that passes and perishes?
  • Of muscles, skin?
  • Of leaves crackling in a fire? A lofty abstraction
  • Stronger than anything because it is not alive?

The image of “leaves crackling in the fire” seems like a nostalgic, autumnal metaphor for the passage of time, but when it is read together with the preceding “muscles, skin,” it calls forth much darker, more frightening associations. The somber (p.82) closing phrase, “not alive,” seems to negate the upward movement of “lofty abstraction,” but it is also an invitation to explore its two possible meanings: dead or transcending the opposition of life and death.

Finally, the choice is ours, Milosz says, but we should be cognizant of the larger consequences of the choice: “Those fantasies, those pageants constructed by the human mind above the horror of life. All arts, all myths and philosophies: yet they are not limited to staying in their own lofty zone. For from them, from dreams of the mind, this planet arises, such as we know it, transformed and being transformed by mathematical equations.” Are they just dreams? or maybe representations of something else, hidden behind the horizon of our senses? If Milosz knows the answer, he is keeping it to himself. All he is maintaining here, as throughout his whole literary work, is that the human self, the human mind, and the human soul cannot live solely in the empirical. Only what is born out of longings, dreams, and visions can constitute the self's true home.

This is the secret of the connection between poetry and religion: they both create myths out of which reality arises. Even readers of a skeptical disposition can recognize the continuing, mad, inspired, inconclusive effort of the spirit described in these lines from “Capri”:

If I accomplished anything, it was when I, a pious boy, chased after disguise 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.


(1.) Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942–43, trans. Madeleine G. Levine (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

(2.) Milosz's poetry quoted from New and Collected Poems 1931–2001 (New York: Ecco, 2001).

(3.) The Captive Mind, trans. Jane Zielonko (New York: Knopf, 1953).

(4.) The Land of Ulro, trans. Louis Iribarne (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984).

(5.) Road-Side Dog, trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

(6.) Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, trans. Catherine S. Leach (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968).