His Mystic Way

Amorous Initiation: A Novel of Sacred and Profane Love, An Excerpt from the Memoirs of the Chevalier Waldemar de L——

by O.V. de L. Milosz, translated by Belle N. Burke
Inner Traditions, 184 pp., $22.95

When Max Beerbohm’s failed poet Enoch Soames, by virtue of a pact with the Devil, was permitted to inspect the British Museum catalog a hundred years in the future, he found to his utter discouragement that under the name “Soames, Enoch” nothing at all had been added to the three cherished slips for his own “slim volumes.” It would have been otherwise with Oskar Wladyslaw Milosz (1877-1939), though a failed poet in his own lifetime too; he would have found quite a respectable column of posthumous additions, including various critical studies, a series of Cahiers by the “Friends of Milosz,” a handsome Collected Works in ten volumes, and a valuable volume of translations (The Noble Traveller) introduced by his distant cousin the poet Czeslaw Milosz.

Failed poet” is a harsh phrase, but one will have to use it, for it is to the point. Thus it is important to insist, before going further, that—unlike poor Soames—Milosz possessed an unmistakable, though minor, talent. It is impossible to resist the seductive, sepulchral harmonies of lines such as these from “Aux sons d’une musique…” in his Les Sept solitudes of 1906.

Aux sons de ta chanson de harpe rouillée,
Tiède fille qui luis comme une pomme mouillée,
—(Ma tête est si lourde d’éternité vide,
Les mouches d’or font un bruit doux et stupide
Qui prennent tes grands yeux de vache pour des fenêtres),
Aux sons de ta dormante et rousse voix d’été
Fais que je rêve à ce qui aurait pu être
Et n’a pas été…

Quels beaux yeux de n’importe quel animal tu as,
Blanche fille de juin, grande dormeuse!
Mon âme, mon âme est pluvieuse,
D’être et de n’être pas je suis tout las.

It is Baudelaire filtered through Verlaine or Ernest Dowson and quite untranslatable, so much of its charm being purely acoustic and residing in those richly deliquescent rhymes. His more Laforguian (and more translatable) “Symphonie de Novembre” was, however, turned by Ezra Pound into a magnificent English poem.

Oskar Milosz was born at Czereia in Byelorussia, in what in earlier times had been the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. His father, the owner of vast estates, was a half-mad Polish nobleman, in his youth a great hell-raiser and Don Juan. He was a wild and freakish character altogether, who would harness bears to his carriage to take him to the lake for his morning swim. Much interested in aeronautics, he had the village girls help make him a balloon, in which he ascended, crashing into a tree and smashing half the bones in his body. The young Oskar was afraid of him, but half-admiring also. Once he came on his father bleeding from a saber-wound in the belly after an attempted suicide, and he remembered rushing, frantic, through endless corridors in search of help. As for his mother, a Jewess from Warsaw, he claimed to have felt little fondness for her, being repelled by her “materialistic and uncomprehending …

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