The History of Polish Literature by Czeslaw Milosz – The Twentieth Century

Czeslaw Milosz was born in 1911 on a farm in what was then part of the Russian Empire and is now near the center of independent Lithuania. He died in 2004 in Krakow, Poland’s old capital, which had been under Habsburg rule when he was born, but which was one of several second cities in free and independent Poland by the end of his life. He attended university in Vilnius (Wilno), and spent World War II in Warsaw. He joined the postwar government, but defected to the West in 1951, living first in Paris and then California, where he was a professor at Berkeley for many years. After 1989, he spent part of each year in Poland.


In writing about Polish literature during interwar independence, during the war, and during Communism, Milosz is writing about his peers, his fellow artists who engaged with their times, with the inheritance of Polish literature that he has described in the book’s earlier chapters, and with each other. He is, perforce, required to reckon with his own stature and legacy as well.

Poland began the twentieth century as it had begun the nineteenth: divided among Russian, Austrian and German rule. The First World War and the collapse of the three empires provided an opportunity for Poland to return to the map of Europe for the first time since 1795. The ideals of the rebellions, of the romantic writers, of the tradition of upholding Polish language and culture under foreign rule seemed to have come to fruition. “The joy, even euphoria, that followed the recovery of independence in 1918 was faithfully noted by literature.” (p. 384) This is the period Milosz describes in some of his essays in To Begin Where I Am (which I read and liked immensely) and his first novel, The Issa Valley (which I have not yet read). Looking at the literature of independent Poland, he begins with his vocation, poetry, and notes that while some writers of Young Poland were still active, a new generation was also emerging, centered on a review called Skamander.

The young poets emitted a shout of triumph: they were the first generation of free and independent Poland, but, above all, they were free from commitment. Poetry, which had had to serve a cause for so long in Poland, could at last recover its lightheartedness and could perform a spontaneous dance without recourse to compulsive justifications. (p. 385)

And while the Skamander poets found the greatest resonance with the public — they were traditional in their leanings even while introducing “words taken from everyday life, colloquial idioms, and an urban setting” (p. 386) into their poems — the ferment of European cultural life in the interwar years did not pass Poland by. There were poets who wrote more in the vein of German expressionism, of Dada, of futurism; French and Russian influences coursed through their pages as well.

Milosz sees 1930 as a dividing line in Polish poetry between the wars. By then the euphoria of independence had worn off, political paralysis in parliament had led to an increasingly authoritarian government under Marshal Pilsudski, the hero of independence. The economic crisis, sparked on Wall Street in 1929, fell hard on Poland, and fascist groupings emerged on the Right. The proximity of the Soviet Union, which had fought a war with Poland in 1920 and whose armies had advanced to the Warsaw suburbs, marked danger on the Left. Julian Tuwim, whom Milosz describes as “number-one” poet between the wars, caught the mood with

his powerful long poem, Ball at the Opera (Bal w operze, written 1936, published in its entirety only after World War II). Here, Tuwim’s abilities as an author of light verse, as a satirist, and a tragic poet converge. The fury in his description of generals, diplomats, bankers, whores, and plainclothesmen at a ball in the palace of a fascist dictator, Pantokrator, is matched by the nervous dazzling rhythm of his verse. … It is an apocalyptic poem where Tuwim’s horror of a corrupt society’s filthy doings fuses with a foreboding of genocide. Originally, the poem bore a motto from the Apocalypse of St. John, and the end of the ball is nothing other than the end of the world. (p. 389)

Milosz also sees 1930 as the turning point in the poems of Antoni Słonimski, “a Warsaw native from a Jewish family that produced several scientists and medical doctors.” (p. 393) Before that date, he brought back from travels to Brazil and Palestine “saturated with sun and sea.” (p. 393)

Later on, a new somber tone in his poetry registered the ominous signs of a world cataclysm: the economic crisis, the burning of surplus wheat for which there was no market, rising totalitarianism, and the threat of war. …
He was aware of the madness seizing Germany, and his poem “To the Germans” is really a poem about Archimedes, who stands for intellectuals of all times: Archimedes was tracing his figures on the sand when the Romans conquered Syracuse, and he said to a Roman mercenary, “Do not touch my circles,” only to be killed in the next instant. …
Shortly before the war, a satirical novel of anticipation by Słonimski appeared: Two Ends of the World (Dwa końce świata, 1937), which, unfortunately, proved to be all too prophetic. In the novel, Warsaw is utterly destroyed by the bombs of a dictator by the name of Retlich (read in reverse, it approximates “Hitler”). Out of all its inhabitants only two remain alive, but when they meet amid the ruins of the city, they cannot find a common language, as one is a sophisticated Jewish boy (a former bookstore salesman) and the other is a moronic brute from a workers’ district who speaks an unintelligible slang. Eventually, an army of Lapps in their reindeerskins occupies Warsaw and puts both of them into a concentration camp. (pp. 393–95)

Following Skamander, Milosz sees the emergence of two vanguards in Polish poetry; roughly, one in the 1920s and one in the 1930s. The first aimed for as dense a line as possible, in opposition to what they saw as the older movement’s “passive submission to a lyrical flow.” (p. 401) The second vanguard shared “a certain intellectual climate rather than … any common programs.” (p. 405) It was “neither neat in its thought nor well ordered in its verse, [which] was rich, complex, chaotic, conscious of a disparity between the fate of modern man and the artistic means at his disposal.” (p. 405) Though they did not share a single poetic approach, “Their merit lay in opening up new, if dark, vistas; postwar poetry with its philosophical contents can be said to have stemmed more or less directly from them. Some of these poets became leading figures after World War II, and, thus, belong to two periods.” (p. 405) One of the four founders of a second vanguard review titled Quadriga (Kwadryga), wrote a long apocalyptic poem, The End of the World: Visions of St. Ildefonse, or a Satire on the Universe, that compares with Tuwim’s Ball at the Opera. Another founder of Quadriga, Czeslaw Milosz “is the author of this book, and he feels embarrassed to characterize his contribution.” (p. 413) But not too embarrassed to evaluate his first book of poems (“spoiled by social ratiocinations”) and to give both a critic’s view of his work along with an oblique rebuttal. Even in 1969, 11 years before his Nobel, he knew that he was a significant poet. He writes of one collection “published as one of the first books in postwar Poland, [it] marked a new approach to historical tragedy and, together with the volumes of Ważyk, Jastrun, and Przyboś, left its stamp upon the development of Polish poetry in the next two decades.” (p. 413)

Among prose writers of the interwar years, Milosz pays closest attention to Maria Dąbrowska and in particular her four-volume novel, Nights and Days (Noce i dnie, 1932–34). Though her family saga was similar to tales in English and French literature, her influence reached well beyond the audience would presume for a story of domestic life set in the previous century. Milosz quotes an avant-garde poet, “When I want to breathe in the very essence of Polish in poetry, I bend over Pan Tadeusz; when I want to drink from the stream of Polish in prose, I immerse myself in Nights and Days.” (p. 422) Her influence arose from more than just her work: “During the war, she lived in Warsaw [as did Milosz], and her behavior under the Nazi occupation served as a model for the whole community of writers.” (p. 422)

At the other end of the spectrum is Witold Gombrowicz, whose debut collection (Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity), first novel (Ferdydurke) and major play (Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy), Milosz characterizes as “crazy.”

If we have employed the word “crazy,” it is because Gombrowicz exhilarated the public with his buffoonery. In fact, he proceeded by a game of constant provocation, cornering the reader into an admission of unpalatable truths. Of a philosophical mind, but completely free from any respect for the sort of philosophy taught in universities, he had no reverence whatsoever for literature. He derided it as a snobbish ritual, and if he practiced it, he attempted to get rid of all its accepted rules. (p. 432)

Gombrowicz chased authenticity, and thought that anything that destroyed “the form” was generally good. This skepticism, coupled with linguistic playfulness, make him a mercurial figure in Polish literature, one who was picked up in translation after the war and who gained recognition from Western European critics in the 1960s.

The last full chapter in The History of Polish Literature details writing during World War II and in the first 20 years of Communist Poland. Milosz begins with an attempt to convey the horrors that the war brought to Poland and people’s reaction to them.

The Nazi policy in Poland differed from that applied in other occupied countries. Their goal was to exterminate as much as possible of the population and to turn what would remain of “the inferior race” into slaves. This program was applied with greater and greater boldness. There were mass executions of hostages… All universities and high schools were closed, and a group of leading professors at the Jagiellonian University was deported to the concentration camp at Dachau. No periodicals and no books in Polish were allowed to be published. Rations of food allotted to city-dwellers were insufficient for survival even on a level of semistarvation. The outcome of these Nazi measures was the spontaneous growth of a resistance movement and a black market. In a very short time the resistance movement had at its disposal an organizational network, a true “underground state,” with its own guerrilla Home Army and numerous, clandestinely printed, periodicals—dailies, weeklies, and monthlies. (p. 442)

Literature under those circumstances would seem impossible, and yet people continued to write, to read, and even to discuss. “Poetry (because it took up less space than prose) was the mainstay of the literary Resistance.” (p. 446) Milosz edited one of seven clandestinely printed anthologies of poetry, and his work appeared in at least one more. The war was every bit as merciless to the literary as it was to the rest of Polish society. All four editors of Art and the Nation perished: “one in a concentration camp, one from wounds received during an exchange of gunfire with Nazi police, one before a firing squad, and one in battle.” (p. 446) Tadeusz Gajcy, whom Milosz calls the most gifted poet associated with Art and the Nation, died a soldier’s death in the Warsaw Uprising. The co-editor of another clandestine literary monthly “within a few years, produced a copious poetic work” and died before his twenty-fourth birthday as a platoon commander during the Warsaw Uprising. The toll continued.

The Poland that emerged from the Second World War was changed in almost every aspect. Geographically, it had ceded vast territories in its eastern half to the Soviet Union, while gaining cities and regions in the west at the expense of Germany. Populations were moved wholesale in the wake of the border changes. The sizable share of Poland’s citizens who were Jewish had been almost completely wiped out. Much of Warsaw was razed to the ground, and war damage was ubiquitous elsewhere in the country. The Red Army brought a Communist government with it, although some facades of democracy were kept until 1948.

Milosz writes of some structural tendencies within post-war Polish literature. These, however, owed much to political developments, and particularly to the ebb and flow of censorship under the Communist regime. The literary changes are still too close to the time of his writing for much evaluation; moreover, he is beginning to write about generations younger than his—always a tricky prospect. One of the strengths of this section of the book is that Milosz is generous with excerpts and translations, allowing readers to gain their own impressions of the poets under consideration. He provides sketches of a great many poets and prose writers, many of them still living and working when Milosz’s history was first published. He even noted Wisława Szymborska, who was then in her mid-40s and would win the Nobel Prize in Literature some 27 years later, 16 years after Milosz.

The Epilogue that Milosz tacked on in 1982 is a sketch of just a few pages. Polish literature is fortunate to have such a fine chronicler of its history in English. One of the enduring themes of the book is how much Poland and its literature have partaken of the broader streams of development across Europe, and how they have, in turn, given back to European culture. It’s too bad that he did not turn back to this volume one last time late in his life, when he could consider the Communist period as a whole, and offer his judgment on the half century of developments in Polish letters after the war that he was fortunate enough to live to see. I wish that he had mainly because his exposition of the rest of the history of Polish literature is such an exquisite guide to art, history, and culture.


The History of Polish Literature
More concerning The History of Polish Literature
Romanticism and Positivism
Young Poland

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.