There is probably no greater poet who helped America learn about the heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Polish literature than Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004). He is regarded as one of the great poets of the 20th century and won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. Miłosz settled in the US in 1960, where he became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He lived in California until 2000.
Miłosz published mostly in Polish but also sometimes in English. Moreover, most of his Polish works were translated into English. Therefore, many American literary critics viewed Miłosz as an American author, including his poems in anthologies of American poetry. Many American museums and galleries that hosted exhibitions about him presented the poet using this perspective. On the other hand, Miłosz helped introduce American readers to his poetry and his fellow Polish poets’ work by conceiving and editing the anthology Postwar Polish Poetry, which was published in English in the US in 1965. Prominent American poets like W.S. Merwin, and scholars like Clare Cavanagh, have argued that the work profoundly impacted US awareness of Polish literature. It was for many American readers their first exposure to Polish poetry, including those who came from the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Czesław Miłosz was born in the village of Šeteniai near Kėdainiai, Lithuania, which was a historical centre of Calvinism and stronghold of the powerful Radziwiłł/Radvila noble family. The village is located in the borderland between the two main historical regions of Lithuania: Samogitia and Aukštaitija. Among Miłosz’s ancestors can be found Lithuanians, Poles and Germans. He ultimately learned Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English, French, and Hebrew.
Although Miłosz frequently spoke of Poland as his motherland, he also identified himself as one of the last citizens of the multi-ethnic Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In his Nobel speech he said that “It is good to be born in a small country where Nature was on a human scale, where various languages and religions cohabited for centuries. I have in mind Lithuania, a country of myths and of poetry. My family already in the Sixteenth Century spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland – English; so I am a Polish, not a Lithuanian, poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me”. Miłosz lived and studied in Vilnius. He declared in his Nobel speech that “It is a blessing if one receives from fate school and university studies in such a city as Vilnius. A bizarre city of baroque architecture transplanted to northern forests and of history fixed in every stone, a city of forty Roman Catholic churches and of numerous synagogues. In those days the Jews called it a Jerusalem of the North. “
Today Miłosz is greatly venerated in Lithuania and Poland and treated as a cultural bridge between both countries. Miłosz was made an honorary citizen of Lithuania soon after it regained independence. His birthplace was made into a museum and conference center. Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas also has an academic center named after Miłosz. Speaking at a ceremony to celebrate the centenary of his birth in 2011, then Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė stressed that Miłosz’s works “unite the Lithuanian and Polish people and reveal how close and how fruitful the ties between our people can be”.
Czesław Miłosz especially identified with Samogitia, the last pagan region of Europe. Its inhabitants formally accepted Christianity at the beginning of the 15th century but continued to practice their native religion for more than 200 years after their official conversion. Moreover, some pagan beliefs and customs survived much longer. In the Middle Ages, Samogitians defended their country against crusaders from across Europe. In effect, Miłosz called Lithuanians the “Redskins” of Europe, noticing striking similarities between their fate and the history of the Native Americans. He expressed a huge sympathy for the Native American and Lithuanian defense of their motherlands from external aggression.
In one interview, he admitted that as a kid he grew up reading James Fenimore Cooper’s (1789-1851) books about the Native Americans from the Great Lakes. He would then play out these stories in the forests of Lithuania. In one his poems, he recalled his childhood in the country whilst simultaneously describing the banks of the Potomac and evoking Indian heritage:
O bird, O graceful bird, You, who today sing me just the same song, as the Indian hunter once heard here, standing with his bow on a deer path
Indeed, Miłosz admired the culture of Native Americans. In one of his essays, he wrote that “Undoubtedly, the Zuni Indians, experiencing a life governed by a religion with the history of many thousand years, could discuss human nature more successfully than the witnesses and participants of the twentieth century”. Miłosz very much enjoyed his visit to Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, which is an ancient settlement belonging to a Taos-speaking (Tiwa) tribe of the Puebloan people. This group are relatives of the Zuni Indians. The community or ‘pueblo’ is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the US. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Miłosz was impressed by the religious syncretism of the Taos people, which reminded him of Samogitia. He wrote that “ritual Indian dances are performed here in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary – a combination of paganism and Catholicism”. Miłosz also showed great sympathy and appreciation for Latino and African-Americans and their cultures. He believed that “the only living people (and the ability to create art is a manifestation of life) are Blacks and Indians – if you take human groups, not individuals. So, the lowest, the poorest, the most disadvantaged people. Mexicans, who live in mass on the level of Polish peasants, or even lower, are alive – they feel, love, create art”.
Miłosz reviewed the most interesting works of African-American artists. He translated the poems of Black poets and was the first to translate ‘Negro Spiritual’ songs into Polish. This was a genre of music that was created over generations by African-Americans. The style merged African cultural heritage with the experiences of slavery in America. According to Miłosz, ‘Negro Spiritual’ was an expression of artistic genius of a universal spiritual character. He once rhetorically asked “Why was the great poetry and great music of “Negro Spiritual” created by Blacks, slaves and illiterates? Because in people there is death, decay, fall, inertia, sentimentality – but there is also life, flourishing, power, and greatness”.