One of the finest poems by Czesław Miłosz is the four-part sequence A Treatise on Poetry, a kind of elegy for pre-war Poland, which he wrote in France in the mid-1950s. Its first part, “Beautiful Times,” describes the glamorous society life in Kraków before World War I, and concludes with these lines: “The laughter in cafes/Echoes about a hero’s grave”; its second part, “The Capital,” ends with this little scene in Warsaw the night before the German invasion on September 1, 1939:
On Tamka Street a girl’s heels click.
She calls in a half whisper. They go together
To an empty lot overgrown with weeds.
A watchman on duty, hidden in the shadows,
Hears their soft voices in the bedding dark.
I do not know how to bear my pity….
Later I would ask myself more than once
What became of them in the coming years and ages.
Miłosz, the Polish poet, writer, diplomat, exile, and Nobel laureate, was a figure whose own life seemed to embody the turmoil of the twentieth century. He lived through both world wars and the Russian Revolution, experienced fascism, communism, and democracy, lived in Eastern and Western Europe and, later, the United States, and he returned again and again to these events in his writing. “To me Miłosz is one of those authors whose personal life dictates his work…. Except for his poems, all of his writing is tied to his…personal history or to the history of his times,” Witold Gombrowicz, the other great Polish writer in exile, said of him. I agree, but would not exclude Miłosz’s poems and don’t believe he would either, since he regarded his highest achievement as a poet to be his ability to fuse history and his personal experience.
When asked about his home, Miłosz said that he came from another planet, another time, another epoch. He was born in 1911 in Lithuania—then part of the Russian Empire—in one of those regions of Eastern Europe of which even Western Europeans have only a vague idea, where millions of people were killed and displaced by both world wars and where the ones who survived almost without exception had an astonishing life story to tell.
Miłosz’s father was a Pole of Lithuanian origin and his mother a descendant of the old Polish-speaking gentry on whose parents’ country estate Miłosz was born. Their son was christened in a local Catholic church with his name entered in the registry as a subject of tsarist Russia. What he and his family were to experience in their lifetimes under the pressure of historical events was the fate of many other people, and it included the most important lesson—that good and evil are not some debatable religious or philosophical concepts, but things one learns to recognize daily…
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