When Czesław Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October of 1980, not a few readers believed the prize had somehow been awarded to Poland, the country. Many more believed the Nobel committee had chosen to honor Solidarity, the Polish trade union, for its resistance to Soviet control.
Strictly speaking, these readers were wrong: The committee had made its decision before Solidarity was founded on September 17, 1980. So reports Andrzej Franaszek in the first full biography of Miłosz, which was published in Poland in 2011 and now appears in a shortened English translation by Aleksandra and Michael Parker. But in a broader sense, those readers were right: Miłosz’s fame, especially among those who couldn’t read Polish, grew out of his words against totalitarian rule. His early poems reacted—with desolation, with grim resolve, with a deliberately naive faith—to Nazi-occupied Poland; his book-length essay The Captive Mind examined the seductions of communist doctrine and the perils of Soviet rule. Anglophone writers (and not only poets) still see in him a voice of integrity, a voice against political repression.
Sometimes Miłosz saw himself that way, too. And yet to view him only as a poet who made his stand against repressive regimes is to leave out much of what makes his poetry memorable. Reading his poems alongside his life means finding arguments, denunciations, alliances, credos, apologies, and promises about politics and history; it also means discovering why Miłosz thought none of these things were enough. Literature generally—and, for Miłosz, poetry in particular—could not simply argue, object, or denounce; it had to present an alternative, a form of hope, if not a way to believe.
Czesław Miłosz was born in 1911 to a Polish-speaking bourgeois family with roots in Latvia and Lithuania, territories then ruled from Imperial Russia. His father, an engineer, accepted assignments in Siberia and Estonia, with long trips in between. If the family belonged anywhere, it was in Wilno (now Vilnius), Lithuania’s historical capital. After the Russian Revolution, the family endured displacement and chaos—in one railway station, Miłosz writes, “I, six years old, got lost / And the repatriation train was starting, about to leave me behind, / Forever…. I would have been somebody else, / A poet of another language, of a different fate.”
At the end of 1918, the family settled on an estate belonging to his mother’s family in Szetejnie, Lithuania. There, a young Czesław found “communion with country life” among the oak trees, marshes, flower gardens, and geese. In retrospect, these would be some of his happiest hours, but they did not last. By the end of 1920, Wilno had become part of Poland, whereas Szetejnie lay in “the new, now-truncated Lithuanian state,” where Polish speakers in general, and Czesław’s father in particular (who had been part of a coup attempt), were unwelcome. The family settled again in Wilno, where Miłosz studied law, fell in and out of love, and began to publish poems.