Czesław Miłosz: Writer, Poet
Milosz Residence: 978 Grizzly Peak Boulevard
Dwinelle Hall, 5405 Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
Writer and poet Czeslaw Milosz was born to Polish gentry parents in Lithuania, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Polish was his native tongue and the language in which he wrote, but he always emphasized his dual ethnicity by saying that though his family had spoken Polish since the sixteenth century, “the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania” were an essential part of him.
He grew up in the countryside, hunting with his father and reading 19th century authors in his grandfather’s library, entranced by books on nature. He felt that the young hunter in Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer set the pattern that he followed in his own life—moving from East to West and growing old as an exile. The Lithuania he knew and loved was immortalized in his novel The Valley of Issa, written when he was in his 40s. At 58 while living in his adopted home in California, he wrote Visions from San Francisco Bay, a series of interrelated essays on the malaise of twentieth century man.
Milosz was a child when Lithuania and Poland achieved independence following WWI, and he was in his early 30s when they became satellites of the Soviet Union at the end of WWII. For a time he worked as a cultural attaché in New York and Washington, D.C., but ultimately he became disillusioned by Poland’s communist regime and moved to Paris. Later, he defected to the West. His 1953 book The Captive Mind is a study of intellectual suppression under repressive regimes. Milosz’s work was banned in Poland until 1980, following the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in the same year. A Polish Catholic publishing house was then given state permission to print only a selection of his poetry.
With his wife and two sons, Milosz moved to California in 1960 to teach in the Slavic Languages and Literature Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Former students say they were sometimes terrified by his tendency to probe their responses, compounding his questions with multiple digressions that related to his general curiosity about the world. At first, he supported the student Vietnam anti-war protests, but eventually he distanced himself due to what he perceived as the protestors’ naive pro-marxist ideology.
Milosz retired from teaching in 1989. That year he received the U.S. National Medal of Arts and recognition by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for the work he and his brother, Andrzej Milosz, had done to save Polish Jews during the German occupation of Poland. He continued writing poems, essays, and prose until his death at age 93 in Poland.
Dzień taki szczęśliwy.
Mgła opadła wcześnie, pracowałem w ogrodzie.
Kolibry przystawały nad kwiatem kaprifolium.
Nie było na ziemi rzeczy, którą chciałbym mieć.
Nie znałem nikogo, komu warto byłoby zazdrościć.
Co przydarzyło się złego, zapomniałem.
Nie wstydziłem się myśleć, że byłem kim jestem.
Nie czułem w ciele żadnego bólu.
Prostując się, widziałem niebieskie morze i żagle.
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was nothing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
From “Czeslaw Milosz : New & Collected Poems 1931-2001.” Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.
Contributed by Helena Wills and Diana Kehlmann, 2017
Milosz and Janina, Pisa (1963), photo, Tony Milosz, courtesy Milosz family.
Czeslaw Milosz, photo AKG ImagesEast News.
ilosz residence entry, photo R. Kehlmann (2017)
Milosz Tomb, Skalka Catholic Church, Krakow, Poland, photo Helena Wills.
Visions from San Francisco Bay, tr. Richard Lourie, Farrar Straus and Giroux, NY
Lithuanian postage stamp commemorating the poet's 100th birthday.