Poet, essayist, translator, literary historian, diplomat.
Miłosz spent his younger years in Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania), studying first at the King Zygmunt August Secondary School, where he passed his matriculation examinations in 1929, then at the Stefan Batory University, where he initially pursued Polish studies and later switched to law.
Miłosz made his debut with the publication of two poems, “Kompozycja” (Composition) and “Podróż” (Journey), in the university magazine Alma Mater Vilnensis in 1930. During his time at university, Miłosz co-founded the literary society Żagary (Tinders) and co-edited its magazine. He completed his law studies in 1934, and the same year was awarded the Filomaci Literary Prize by the Wilno branch of the Polish Writers’ Trade Union. He spent 1934–5 studying in Paris on a scholarship, and on his return started working for Polish Radio, first in Wilno and then in Warsaw.
In September 1939 Miłosz managed to cross into Romania, then made his way back to Wilno. There, he wrote for Gazeta Codzienna (Daily Paper) and Kurier Wileński (Wilno Courier). He returned to occupied Warsaw in the summer of 1940, taking part in the city’s underground cultural life. Miłosz published a short volume of Wiersze (Verses) in 1940, and then an anthology of poetry Pieśń niepodległa (An Independent Song) in 1942.
New York, Washington, Paris
After the defeat of the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944, Czesław Miłosz left Warsaw and in 1945 settled in Kraków, where he published his works in Odrodzenie (Re-birth), Przekroj (Cross-section) and Twórczość (Creativity). Just after the end of the war he published a volume of poetry, Ocalenie (Rescue). He entered communist Poland’s diplomatic service, and between 1945 and 1951 was posted to New York, Washington and Paris. Having decided in 1951 to become an émigré, Miłosz stayed for the first few months at the Literary Institute. He explained the grounds for this decision in the May issue of Kultura, thus inaugurating his long collaboration with Jerzy Giedroyc. Two years later, the Institute published his Captive Mind, a masterly disquisition on the way thinking people irresistibly accommodate to communist totalitarianism – as Karl Jaspers described it, “a vivid picture of the forms of concealment, of inner transformation, of the sudden bolt to conversion, of the cleavage of man into two”.
The Nobel Prize
In 1960 Miłosz was invited to join the academic staff of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures of the University of California as a visiting lecturer, and left for the United States. Shortly after, he was given a professorship. He settled in Berkley and lived there for the next 20 years, combining literary activity with his academic duties as a lecturer on Polish and Russian literature. He held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard University for the academic year 1981–2 and published his lectures from that year in The Witness of Poetry in 1983. In 1992, he returned to Poland and made his home in Kraków. In 1994 he was awarded Poland’s highest honour – the Order of the White Eagle.
Miłosz received numerous prizes, including the European Literary Prize in Geneva in 1953; the Herminia Naglerowa Prize awarded by the Union of Polish Writers Abroad in 1957; the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Prize in 1968; the London Wiadomości Prize in 1974; the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1978; and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.
Miłosz’s close association with Jerzy Giedroyc and the Literary Institute began with his voluntary exile in 1951. The Institute published all his major émigré works in Kultura – his essays, poetry, articles on Polish, European, and American literature, as well as reviews of books published in Europe and the United States. His translations for Kultura include articles by the international jurist Theodor Meron as well as poetry by T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens from the English, and works by Simone Weil from the French. In the debate on the political situation in Soviet-dominated Poland, his increasingly authoritative voice was ever present.
On three occasions, he was awarded prizes by Kultura: the Kultura Literary Prize in 1957, the Zofia Hertz Literary Prize in 1979, and the K.A. Jeleński Prize for Translators in 1990.
For a select bibliography and other information, please refer to the notes at the end of the biographical note in Polish.