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Czesław Miłosz

By Robert Hass

Probably the appropriate tribute to the memory of a poet is to read a few of his poems in the presence of his peers. But probably he would also have liked it if a word were spoken about his life, especially his early life, to which in the long years of his exile in France and California he returned often in memory and which, amazingly enough, fifty years after leaving, he was able to revisit in the last decade of his life. Czesław was born in Lithuania in the village of Szetejnie in the valley of the Niewiaza River in 1911. Most of Lithuania in those years was a province of the Russian Empire. Its culture was what had been the culture of the Grand Duchy of Poland and Lithuania. It was a feudal world. A world of manor houses presided over by a Polish-speaking gentry and worked by a Lithuanian-speaking peasantry. Czesław’s father was a military engineer in the Tsarist army, so he traveled with his parents as a child. He has reported an early memory of train travel; of the apparition of his first motorcar, seen in St. Petersburg on Nevsky Prospect; of the Trans-Siberian Express with its lush coupes and the bell that was rung to call the passengers to meals; and of a family joke about a servant who traveled with them and, seeing the mountains of Siberia for the first time, said, “Lord! They look like the Apostles!” He went to school in Wilno, as it was called in Polish, and returned there to go to high school and the University, but summers, and in the years of the First World War and after, when his father was away, Czesław and his mother lived in the manor house of his grandparents near the village of Szetejnie. It is some 200 kilometers north of Wilno and I’m told that one could walk down to the river from Miłosz’s grandfather’s estate and float downriver to Wilno in three hours. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as many another artist and writer, was born in Wilno.

Within the circle of this world, the gentry in the country and ordinary working people in the cities, if they were not Jewish, spoke Polish. The country people, if they were not Jewish, spoke Lithuanian. The population, according to Czesław’s accounts, in Conversations with Miłosz, was fifty-percent, perhaps sixty-percent, Jewish. Among the Jews, the language of the lower classes and of country people was Yiddish. Upper-class Jews spoke Russian. In his grandparents’ house, Polish was spoken, and his parents spoke it at home, but now I’m quoting Miłosz:

There was a strong influx of Russian because my father and the people who visited us in Wilno were fond of switching to Russian when the subject was humorous, something Poles are known to do. . . . I was under the sway of the Russian language until the spring of 1918. I was bilingual. I didn’t have much of an idea why I spoke one language to some people and the other one to other people. . . . I used to play with two children, Yashka and Sonka, who lived in our courtyard in Wilno. They were from a Jewish family and they spoke Russian rather than Yiddish. Playing with them gave me practice with my Russian.

His mother, he remarked, ran an elementary school founded in the spirit of “Positivism and Organic Work,” a sort of 19th-century Montessori school that was charitably funded to teach poor Lithuanian children to read and write Polish. Miłosz goes on to report that when he began school, though the pronunciation of Polish by Lithuanian gentry was, and still is, the upper class standard, his papers would come back underlined in red ink with exclamation points beside them because his Polish was so full of expressions that the teachers considered to be regional curiosities: Russian and Lithuanian and Yiddish and Belarusian—borrowings that had belonged quite naturally to his life and his speech.

Polish, however, written Polish, was the language of books, which was the language of pleasure and the language of the promise of the world. Miłosz tells the story that when he was visiting Salem, Massachusetts, and visited one of the faithfully reconstructed 17th-century houses, he thought “this is it—this is where I belong.” He was in his grandfather’s manor with the door off the dining room leading to the kitchen as in a Dutch painting. And the kitchen itself, he said, was a Chardin. Chardin and Dutch painting, except for the couch in the parlor, in the Empire style and covered in oilcloth, where, in 1918, when he was seven years old, a pretty, older cousin came to visit and sat him down and began to read him one of the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz. It was an event described as an initiation. It was, or at least for the purposes of this telling, it can stand for the language that took him through his early poems of the 1930s, through the poems that he wrote and then the underground anthologies he edited in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation—one of them was called Invincible Song—when the language of government in Poland was German and when Miłosz began studying English, reading Shakespeare and the poems of William Blake and T. S. Eliot. After the war, in Washington, as a cultural attaché to the Polish embassy, he was able to improve his English by reading the Partisan Review and, in Polish, summarizing its contents by way of supplying “briefings” on American culture to the home office. By the 1950s, in exile in Paris with the French he had learned at school and in summer visits to France when he was at the University, he began to write, besides The Captive Mind, the book that made his international reputation, the prose books that began to look back on the world of his childhood; a novel, The Issa Valley, and a work of autobiography, Native Realm.

It was also the language he brought with him to California, where in Berkeley on a hillside above San Francisco Bay, Miłosz wrote poems for another forty years. I want to read a few of his poems now, or rather, I want to read a few English translations of his Polish poems. But let me close the circle a bit first by saying that Czesław lived with English as well as Polish for those forty years. During those years he improved his Greek and worked up some Hebrew and translated the psalms of David into Polish. He also, toward the end of his life in Berkeley, hired a tutor to help him to improve what remained of his childhood Lithuanian. He told his friends that he wanted to be fluent in case Lithuanian turned out to be the language spoken in Heaven. He got to return to Poland, as you know, with his American wife, so that he spoke English at home and Polish in the world, and was surrounded by the voices of young Polish poets. And after his wife died unexpectedly, he was alone with Polish again and said to friends in the difficult days after her death that he was surviving by incantation. Finally, he was buried this August in a Polish ceremony in the Basilica of Saint Mary in the great square in Krakow. The altar and the casket were heaped with calamus and with wild ginger—the white flowers of the Polish summer—and after the funeral, at the graveside service, a part of his poem, “In Szetejnie,” was read in Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, English, French, and Hebrew by his poet friends.

I’ll finish with that section of the poem and one other. And here’s the section of Czesław’s poem that was read in Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, English, French, and Hebrew:


You were my beginning and again I am with you, here, where I learned the four quarters of the globe.

Below, behind the trees, the River’s quarter; to the back, behind the buildings,
the quarter of the Forest; to the right, the quarter of the Holy Ford; to
the left, the quarter of the Smithy and the Ferry.

Wherever I wandered, through whatever continents, my face was always
turned to the River.

Feeling in my mouth the taste and the scent of the rosewhite flesh of calamus.

Hearing old pagan songs of harvesters returning from the fields, while the
sun on quiet evenings was dying out behind the hills.

In the greenery gone wild I could still locate the place of an arbor where
you forced me to draw my first awkward letters.

And I would try to escape to my hideouts, for I was certain that I would
never learn how to write.

I did not expect, either, to learn that though bones fall into dust, and dozens
of years pass, there is still the same presence.

That we could, as we do, live in the realm of eternal mirrors, working our
way at the same time through unmowed grasses.

And finally, “Incantation,” by Czesław Miłosz:

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

Read by Robert Pinsky at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 11, 2004.

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