Return of the Native

The Issa Valley

by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Louis Iribarne
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 288 pp., $13.95

Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition paperback edition

by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Catherine S. Leach
to be published by the University of California Press in August in a, 300 pp., $7.95

Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision

by Czeslaw Milosz
University of California Press, 263 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Bells in Winter

translated by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Lillian Vallee
The Ecco Press, 71 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Captive Mind

by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Jane Zielonko. (with a new foreword by the author)
to be published by Vintage Books in August in a paperback edition, 272 pp., $4.95

Czeslaw Milosz
Czeslaw Milosz; drawing by David Levine

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” (I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, a true German.) The twelfth line of The Waste Land, a fragment from the poet’s reading in a German memoir, raises more echoes than even T.S. Eliot was likely to be aware of, and certainly more than are grasped by most of his readers. The connection with the poem is minimal, but as in so many of its other lines randomness has achieved an air of inevitability, in its suggestion of unhappy and not-so-far-off things, unknown lives, and fates, the product of complex histories, the inspissated rivalries and relations of Lithuanians, Balts and Letts, Jews, Germans, and Russians.

With them no one could have a more natural familiarity than the poet and winner of the 1980 Nobel prize for literature, Czeslaw Milosz. He too stemmed from Lithuania. But not with any conviction of purity; and during a century when the now small but once enormous country has been successively Russian, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, German, and now Soviet Russian again. Like most of the native sons of the town known in Polish as Wilno (German and Russian Wilna, Lithuanian Vilnius), Milosz is a Polish speaker, and it was in Polish that he began to write his poems. With a hint of irony he remarks that natives of his province are more inward, with the deeper intimacies of the Polish language, than are their metropolitan cousins at the center in Warsaw. The “Polish Pushkin,” Adam Mickiewicz, foremost of native poets, began to write under the inspiration of the land of Polish Lithuania.

But whereas a poet from Dublin or Edinburgh would advance in all seriousness the proposition that the English language at its liveliest and most sensitive was to be found in those towns (and a bookish native of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles might do the same), Milosz is unquestionably amused by the complacency of his own claim that languages are richest at their cultural edges. Nationality is not a thing he can take seriously: it would be hard to imagine a greater writer more emancipated from even its most subtle pretensions.

Nevertheless his genius flourishes and finds its subject in the many degrees of consciousness nationality implies; and to feast on such things and yet remain free of them is in itself a gift of genius. Language and nationality are haunts of the irrational. They are also the root of the well-grown ego, the base of that samodovolnost—self-satisfaction—which Tolstoy (whose forebears, before rising in the Tsar’s service, had themselves stemmed from Lithuania) perceived as the beginning of all lively and healthy human activity. Our natures grow and flourish by denaturing those who are not planted in the same bed. The snobberies of race and language are even more needful in us, more deeply intertwined in the unconscious, than the associated snobberies…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.