The poet after winter

Czeslaw Milosz was mixed up in a lot of twentieth century history, but he managed to be one of the century’s greatest poets anyway. He died this past summer at age 93, two years after publishing New and Collected Poems, 1931 – 2001, from which the poems quoted in this article are drawn.

Milosz’s poems rarely address directly the terror he witnessed under Stalin’s and Hitler’s régimes. Milosz apparently agreed with Polish novelist Eliza Orzeszkowa, who, he said, “certainly knew much about the dark side of human existence, but she preferred, for reasons she considered superior, not to divulge that knowledge…”

The “superior reason” for Milosz may be his curious form of optimism that bends in the face of hell but does not break. In this respect, Milosz’s optimism resembles that of Dostoevsky, whom Milosz lectured on during Milosz’s many years as a professor at Berkeley. Milosz was Catholic, but, unlike Dostoevsky, he had his doubts about his Christian faith. Milosz preferred a “‘philosophical faith,’ i.e., a belief in transcendence as a measure of humanity.” He believed in “objective truth” and reason, which he considered “a gift of God.” (“What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch”)

Milosz had faith also in his calling as a poet, and he had an unwavering understanding that he would be held accountable in some way by God for what he did with that calling. The business of our calling is tricky, because we do not see clearly:

Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, and only late do we discover how obedient we were.

(“Capri”) Most of our works are not according to our calling, but are in reaction to the abyss we feel inside:

What chaos
Received bounds, from here to there.
What abyss
Was seen and passed over in silence.
What fear
Of what you are.

This calling to order and bounds (the name of the poem is “Calling to Order”) is a false calling, driving us to many works that do not stand the test of time.

But the hell of it is, the good works do not stand the test of time, either. The good works come about as we follow paths that are consistent with our callings. These paths, though, are “disguises of the lost Reality” and are subject to time and memory’s extinction, too. Consider some of my favorite lines of Milosz’s:

If I accomplished anything, it was only when I, a pious boy, chased after the disguises of the lost Reality.
After the real presence of divinity in our flesh and blood which are at the same time bread and wine,
Hearing the immense call of the Particular, despite the earthly law that sentences memory to extinction.

These final lines from Milosz’s “Capri” bring the reader back to the poem’s opening line, where the poet as a child receives both his first communion and, afterwards, cocoa “by zealous Catholic ladies.” Milosz finds divinity, or at least divinity’s disguise, in both drinks, and he wants to return to Wilno in order to “look intently at [the faces of the Catholic ladies], trying to prevent their fading away.”

Milosz never denies the Particular because it somehow leads to divinity, even though the Particular presents us with two problems: it will fade away, and, while it is here, it can distract us from the very divinity it can lead us to. In a poem called “Report,” Milosz expresses his ambivalence toward the Particular we are immersed into, calling our lives “a most precious delusion.” He weighs the merits of the Particular’s “immense call” in his prose/poem “In a Buggy at Dark”:

We cannot look straight into the sun. On the other hand we should not imitate the guests in the royal palace from Baal Shem-Tov’s tale, who forgot why they arrived there.

A Hassidic Tale

From various countries, districts, villages, cities
We were invited to the palace of the king.
His ponds and his gardens astonished us
As well as the choruses of birds and trees of every species.
Wandering through the rooms we saw marvels,
Gold, and sliver, and pearls and precious stones.
Days and weeks were too short for looking.

While the guests scattered through the maze of rooms
I insisted on searching for the king’s chamber
And was led in. Suddenly all those things
Vanished. They had been conjured up
By Him, the All-Radiant, master of Illusion.

The poet is as aware of his own subjection to illusion as he is of others’ blindness, and this awareness is what gives Milosz’s poetry its straightforward humility. Poetry itself is a product of, as well as an indictment of, this blindness and self-delusion: “Out of self-delusion comes poetry and poetry confesses to its flaw.” (“Report”)

Milosz’s prayers to this “master of Illusion” focus on Milosz’s calling as a frail man as well as a poet. During one such prayer in “Report,” he acknowledges that poets are under “the compulsion of the desire for the essence of the oak, of the mountain peak, of the wasp and of the flower of nasturtium. / So that they last. . .” Of course, these things will not last, but Milosz finds comfort at least in being in a crowd of like-minded compulsives:

It is sweet to think that I was a companion in an expedition that never ceases, though centuries pass away. (“Report”)

The poet’s softened heart extends especially to “all who lived, strived, and never succeeded in naming.” (Id.) Most of us, as well as the works of our hands, will be forgotten because “time excludes and sentences to oblivion only those works of our hands and minds which prove worthless in raising up, century after century, the huge edifice of civilization.” (“What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch”) Time, then, sentences memory to oblivion and our works with it. All we can do is go about our calling, and watch our frailty with bemusement and with as much insight as our milieu allows:

Like everyone who lived there and then, I didn’t see clearly.
This I confess to you, my young students.

(“Six Lectures in Verse”)

Like most of the people in the world, the poet will not “succeed in naming.” There is no such component to the poet’s calling: “…I was ordered to be born, to work, to leave a trace.” (“Capri”) To “name” is to beat the sentence against memory and futility, but to name – to leave not a “trace” but a mark on the world – may also cost an individual his calling. Besides, in a handsome line which I find unfathomable, Milosz states that “to exist on the earth is beyond any power to name.” (“Report”) Perhaps Milosz here restates Thomas Hardy (“In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations'”):

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by;
War’s annals will fade into night
Ere their story die.

However, Milosz does not seem as confident about the story’s triumph as even the usually pessimistic Hardy. Because of his experiences under Stalin’s and Hitler’s rule, perhaps Milosz believed more than Hardy that the poet is in part responsible for keeping the maid and her wight’s story alive. Milosz keeps such a story alive unwittingly in “Undressing Justine,” which combines poetry with a personal prose anecdote to show how close literature may come to saving humanity.

In the verse part of “Undressing Justine,” Milosz extends the lives of the characters in the Polish novel On the Banks of the Niemen from the end of the nineteenth century, when the novel was written, into the ordeals of the twentieth century. The prose portion of “Undressing Justine,” written years after Milosz wrote the verse, relates how prophetic the verse is. In the prose, Milosz describes his discovery that the characters in the novel are based on real people, and that the people living in the town in which the novel is set reported that these people met horrible fates which are strikingly similar to the ones in Milosz’s verse.

Towards the end of “Undressing Justine,” Milosz muses that “perhaps some peculiar currents circulate between a literary work, its readers, and the posthumous lives of its characters…” He concludes that, “Probably a commentary is impossible, as, until now, no language has been invented comprehensible to both the living and the dead.”

Perhaps Milosz’s poetry, with its sensitivity to memory and calling, approaches such a language.