The Persona of Czesław Miłosz

Authorial Poetics, Critical Debates, Reception Games

by Mikołaj Golubiewski (Author)
©2018 Monographs 244 Pages
Series: Cross-Roads, Volume 11


The Persona of Czesław Miłosz considers the poetry of Miłosz in the innovative light of world literature and comparative literary studies. The author employs critical debates about Miłosz in American and English literature to reshape the image of his reception. The book masterfully elaborates Miłosz’s poetics of perspectivism with a new method of analysis based on the category of authorial persona—between reception, poetics, and close-reading—separate from the literary persona. Each chapter encapsulates introductory information about Polish literature and moves beyond the horizon of Western expectations about Central European writers. Miłosz’s most discussed poems reveal new provocative power in the context of T. S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, William Blake, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
To date, no work comprehensively examines Miłosz’s self-proclaimed contradictory nature and the nomadic quality of his works. As a result, scholarship remains scattered in diverse areas of interest, moving Miłosz to the margins of world literature, instead of cherishing the diversity of perspectives he championed, among other places, in his Nobel Lecture. Without properly appreciating the poetics of contradiction proposed by Miłosz and a critical analysis of his process of self-situation, we narrow his impact on literature only to Polish poetry, effectively allowing for a petrification of his innovative methods. The Persona of Czesław Miłosz remedies this gap by revealing that, in contrast to Polish and American literary reception, Miłosz was an eccentric eulogist of the concept of a multi-perspectivist persona. Through close examinations of Miłosz’s poetry, we learn that he develops a method of oscillating between ideas in search of lasting symbols common to all, beginning unfailingly with his current perspective. After all, Miłosz persistently placed himself outside of the consensus and maneuvered the subject matter of his works to such an extent that his works became his philosophy of literature and the way of life.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Epigraph
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 The Writer as Proteus and Silkworm
  • The Plurality of Incarnations
  • Unity in Variety
  • The Silkworm and the Cocoon
  • The Boiling Hot Star of Transformations
  • Mowa
  • The Processual Performance
  • The Lyrical Persona
  • Authorial Personae
  • The Lens In-Between
  • The Meaning of Masks
  • 2 Modernist Hagiography
  • Gestures of Self-Situating
  • The Intellectual Shape-Shifting
  • Writers as the People of the Book
  • The Book as the Body
  • The Book as the Sacred
  • The Book as the World
  • Epiphanic Poetry
  • The Spatial Poetics of “A Notebook: Bon By Lake Leman”
  • The Site In-Between
  • To Reveal the Presence of Things
  • 3 Self-Definition
  • The Idea of Witnessing
  • Corporal Testimony
  • Polish Romantic Martyrdom
  • American Puritan Witnessing with Life
  • Witnessing as Mnemonic Supersession
  • Witnessing of the Camps
  • European Bystanders
  • “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto”
  • The Ambivalence of Poorness
  • Guilt
  • The Fall of Humanist Anthropocentrism
  • The Mole
  • The Grotesque
  • 4 The American Witness
  • Miłosz’s American Popularity
  • Lessons for American Poets
  • A Distinct Author
  • Moments That Judge All Poets
  • The Poet of Witness
  • The Immorality of Art
  • Against Lionization
  • The Witness of Poetry
  • 5 The Polish Prophet
  • What Is Polish Culture?
  • Adam Mickiewicz’s Influence
  • Polish Romanticism
  • The Bardic Tradition
  • The Prophetic Tradition
  • Polish Expectations
  • Rescue; Ocalenie
  • “In Warsaw”
  • National and Private Mourning
  • A Self-Conscious Elegy
  • 6 The Gnostic Bard
  • Shared Responsibility for the Camps
  • The Evil of the Gnostic World
  • Manichean Duality
  • The Reworking of the Gnostic Thought
  • Polish “Metaphysical” Miłosz
  • “Campo Dei Fiori”
  • Pastime and Horror
  • Karuzela
  • Dramatis Personae
  • Heresy, Faith, and Science
  • The Recurrence of Tragedy
  • Interpretation and Time
  • 7 The Realist Perspectivist
  • The Burials of Walt Whitman
  • Double Vision of a Telescopic Eye
  • Presence as a Safe House
  • The Peak Position and the Middle Ground
  • The Movement
  • William Blake’s Divine Imagination
  • Friedrich Nietzsche’s Perspectivism
  • Against Nihilism
  • The Utopian Hope
  • “Heraclitus”
  • The Same River
  • Love
  • Conclusion
  • Situating and Movement
  • Endnotes
  • Index


In the center of Miłosz’s poetry lies the experience or memory of a concrete event, whose situation in both time and space the poet explores in an endeavor to gain an understanding of himself. This stems not from introspection, but emerges from occurrences, mediated by the world. Through a movement of reflection, Miłosz situates the individual in the body, history, culture, and language—in a strictly personal yet structurally universal self-observation. Since Miłosz lived most of his life in exile and operated in three languages, his movement effects in a curious self-fashioning and the many allusions to other poets such as William Blake or Walt Whitman further reveal Miłosz’s self-awareness. To thoroughly analyze Miłosz’s methods means to read his works against the perceptions of most of his readers; that is, as experimental. Such experimental poetry by Miłosz conveys his shifting movement of thought and the use of different personae.

The concept of persona, in its modern understanding, has been available since the nineteenth century. However, its scholarly reconnaissance has begun around 1957, with Robert Langbaum’s book The Poetry of Experience concentrating on the development of Robert Browning’s concept of dramatic monologue, later reshaped into literary personae by the modernist poets, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound. Four years after the Langbaum publication, Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction affirmed the idea that the author of fiction too may be a persuasive persona in its own right, and was described by Booth as the “second self” and “the implied image of the artist.”

At the same time, Lionel Trilling argued in his 1972 Norton lectures that English and American poets “have programmatically scuttled the sacred doctrine of the persona” and embraced the ideals of Sincerity and Authenticity, as inscribed in the title of Trilling’s book. To a certain extent against Trilling, Robert C. Elliott undertook to clarify the term as part of the critical discourse in his 1982 book The Literary Persona. The publication just two years of Stephen Greenblatt’s famous work on Renaissance Self-Fashioning, had motivated scholars even more to reflect on the authorial personae projected by writers not only through their style, tone, or technique in writing, but also through the codes they prescribed and by which they lived.

This vein has been developed recently by Jérôme Meizoz, who works with the notion of Postures littéraires (2007, 2011), which set the stage for diachronic analysis of the writer as an actor in the literary field. Meizoz argues that the concept of “posture” comes from Jean Jacques Rousseau. It should be noted that the twentieth-century use of the term “persona” and the like points to two different ←17 | 18→masks: the one held by an author to distance himself from the reader, and the other constructed inside the text as the speaker taking the position of the author.1

Thorough consideration of Miłosz’s theory and practice of writing leads us to postulate instead a persona-in-motion. On the one hand, Miłosz promotes multi-perspectivist poetics that operate with a plethora of literary personae. On the other, Miłosz’s political engagement made him establish at least two different authorial personae, one in the USA and one in Poland. Operating between fictional and factual narratives so as to “situate” himself, Miłosz navigates amidst the modernist and the confessionalist traditions, between literature as an artificial construct and as an authentic voice. Thus, to get a better grasp of the self and the world, Miłosz remains in intellectual motion.

The proliferation of personae comes from the kind of poetry Miłosz wants to create, his mentality, and the developments of his life. This specific blend of intellectual hopes and troublesome life may be unapproachable for Americans—but it is even more unapproachable for Poles who, if exiled, never concentrate on their migrant situation, but rather concentrate on their lost homeland, and often read Miłosz’s distance to Polishness as a rejection of his true self. However, Miłosz uses exile in his own way, not with nostalgia but with deep acceptance, because his home is within the Polish language. Nevertheless, Miłosz’s reception is obscured at his own doing, by his own manner of thinking in contradictions. In this regard, let us consider the most fundamental example from Miłosz’s wartime work in German-occupied Warsaw; the period in life that has completely changed him.

Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909–1983), a notable Polish writer, mentions in his Notatki do autobiografii how he helped his good friend Czesław Miłosz publish the first book of poetry of wartime Warsaw. Andrzejewski, along with Miłosz, and Janina Dłuska (1909–1986) who later became Miłosz’s wife, brought out the book using a typewriter, a razor blade, a stitching awl, and twine. The 46 copies entitled simply Wiersze, Poems, came out in September 1940 under the pseudonym Jan Syruć. Subsequently, the similarly produced collections entitled The World (A Naive Poem) and Voices of Poor People were released in the 1943/1944 book Poems and formed the basis of Miłosz’s first postwar collection Rescue. However, those handmade artifacts of artistic resolve in times of war have been recovered and published only recently, for the centenary of Miłosz’s birthday, seven years after his death, in 2011. Among them were two previously unknown poems and three paragraphs of introduction to the cycle Voices of Poor People.2 The first two sentences captured my attention and read as follows: “I have served two fears: the social fear and the metaphysical fear, expressing one in the language of another. Perhaps they are but one fear, growing when people are forbidden happiness.”3 ←18 | 19→

This fragment perfectly encompasses the later divides of Miłosz’s worldview, poetics, reception, and style. “I have served two fears,” writes Miłosz, using the Polish word trwoga, which translates as “fear” but carries a broader set of meanings. Trwoga means “a state of alertness; from the phrase “bić na trwogę,” meaning “to ring the bells at the sight of an oncoming enemy.” In another instance, a proverb advises the one engulfed with “trwoga” to escape to God, “jak trwoga to do Boga.” In this way, the semantic field of the word “trwoga” already conveys the two fears Miłosz describes, namely, the social and the metaphysical. The two fears encompass Miłosz’s generational experience of social revolutions, like communism or fascism, and his private encounter with esoteric literature, personified by his distant French uncle, Oscar Vladislas Milosz (1877–1939).4

The opposition of the two fears is, however, a literary feint by Miłosz who, over time, developed an intricate system of spiraling paradoxes operating in sets of inconclusive references. For the most part, Miłosz’s declarations remain ungraspable, if not completely elusive. This unceasing movement of thought had been praised much earlier, and more clearly, by one of his favorite American poets, Walt Whitman (1819–1892), who asks in the poem “Walt Whitman,” “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”5

Miłosz was a humanist, so the antinomies he considers are not just his or Polish. There is a larger significance, a dimension that Miłosz generalizes from the local to the global perspective. An example of this is the Polish figure of the modern bard that Miłosz offered to the canon of world literature, simultaneously criticizing its origins and shifting the perspective toward gnosis; from the political to the religious. The issue of scientific materialism versus redemptive belief is, after all, clearly central to Miłosz’s work.

Then again, for Miłosz, Polish religiosity is mostly political. Hence, even when politicians or historians articulate the tensions that Miłosz names, he retains the freedom to move between them, out of academic reasoning and back. As a poet, Miłosz can communicate with more than one language, he can choose from the narratives of science (biology, history, philosophy), power (politics, institutions, systems, the Church), religion (dogmas, rituals, esotericism), or the everyday (the private, the public). The capaciousness of his speech mixes them all in unending reconsiderations.

However, Miłosz does not just concentrate on his present self; he equally encompasses his past and his possible pasts and possible futures. To that end, Miłosz repeatedly returns to the conditional mood and considers the many variants of events, using phrases such as “if only” or “what if.” Moreover, Miłosz moves beyond his self toward other people whom he knew personally to those he ←19 | 20→heard or read about in history books to fictional personae to animals to things. Furthermore, Miłosz consequently surveys the possibility of truth through the eyes of the other and takes this approach to the extreme. That is, Miłosz cherishes the understanding stating, “I have my idea about things, but let us learn from the possibility of different viewpoints.”

Hence, if Miłosz favors a specific poetic genre, it originates in prose and is called a soliloquy, a discussion with oneself famously represented by Augustine’s Confessions. But Miłosz’s soliloquy spreads to all the perspectives and lyrical personae he assumes. So as to gather knowledge about what it is to live as a human, Miłosz imagines different possibilities of life experience and embodiment, different viewpoints and moments of existence.6

Miłosz formulated a telling answer to the famous verse by Whitman, “(I am large, I contain multitudes),” which I use as the motto for this book. In the poem “Ars Poetica?” (1968), Miłosz’s speaker elaborates on the inability to find a stable position within one discourse. He compares himself to an open house with unlocked doors through which others may freely enter and exit. The speaker explains that the poet never has just a single source for his writing, but is inhabited by many external voices. The voices haunt the poet against his rational will and use him as if his body was their own.

Just as the many authors of the Bible are supposed to derive from a single divine source of inspiration, so Miłosz suggests often a single invisible source of his literary work, detached from his person. When Miłosz talks of a “daimonion,” which provokes the rhythm and tone of the work at hand, he is utilizing a term first used by Socrates and meaning “divine touch.” This “daimonion” makes Miłosz feel as if he is only an instrument of greater powers.7

The poet acknowledges the instability of subjective perception, influenced by contrary ideologies, yet he strives to hold his own. Miłosz offers the image of a person as a haunted house, inspired by every person he encounters, motivated by speakers from the past and by the writings of others. This, the speaker argues, is the purpose of poetry: to constantly bring forth the knowledge that a poet’s identity—and possibly the human identity—is never stable, but always plural and referential. We learn from Miłosz’s manifold poems that the invisible guests may be demons or dead friends, imagined heroines or historical figures.

The motto from “Ars Poetica?” reveals the constant shift of perspectives undergoing both in Miłosz’s poetry and in his situating himself as an author. The poet seems to be asking “Is the art of poetry even possible?” or “Is there anything permanent to poetry?” The question mark in the title of “Ars Poetica?” itself situates doubt as the mainspring of Miłosz’s writing and foregrounds his inclination to perspectivism, ambivalence, and oscillation of thought. ←20 | 21→

1The Writer as Proteus and Silkworm

In an interview first published in 1981, Czesław Miłosz reflects on his image as a poet: “Not many poets appear in such a variety of guises.” “Guise” means “a likeness, the external appearance, a shape, and an image.” Significantly, Miłosz uses a stronger noun in Polish, “skóry,” meaning simply “skins” that he consciously puts on and takes off. This phrasing projects a much closer relationship between the author and his writing. What is seemingly self-fashioning settles here into the etymology of “ ‘biography,” a word deriving from the Greek bios, “life,” and graphein, “to write.”

The controlled changing of skins suggests complete metamorphosis, in which one abandons the old shell for a new one in a snake-like process of renovation, rejuvenation, and maturation. The writer abandons the old self, rejects the finished work for the sake of the new and unknown project ahead in order to move on, find new inspiration, and grow, in a constant interchange of biographical gains and losses. This shape-shifting paradoxically makes the artist retain experience but exchange the self and the form projected in literature; it makes him grow more adult and younger at the same time; simultaneously accruing wisdom and naïveté.

To appear in a variety of skins is to revel in alternations without end, in a horizontal progression; or, it is to pursue some higher level of existence in a vertical understanding of being, ascending from the emanated forms. In an explicit recollection on the matter, Miłosz oscillates between the two images of life with the use of two metaphors: Proteus and the silkworm. Even when shifting between two dimensions of change, however, Miłosz undermines his own movement and revels in its ambiguities, pointing to the instability of images that are to capture the reality of his self and the reality of the perceived world. Already the process of dividing the subject and the object of perceptions goes against the many efforts Miłosz makes to reconcile modernity’s breach between the two and to re-enchant its rationalization with the use of ever-new poesy.1


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Comparative Literature Authorial Persona Self-Translation Literary Criticism Polish Literature American Literature
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 243 pp.

Biographical notes

Mikołaj Golubiewski (Author)

Mikołaj Golubiewski (* 1985 Gdańsk, Poland) studied at the Free University of Berlin, the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and the University of Warsaw, taught at Potsdam University. He published academic collections about modernity in literature, Rainer Maria Rilke, and intercultural dialogue. The latter, A Handbook of Dialogue: Trust and Identity was firstly published in English, then translated into Polish and Russian as part of Golubiewski’s work with the Borderland Foundations, which takes care of Czesław Miłosz manor and heritage in Sejny. Currently Golubiewski teaches at the University of Warsaw about the works of Czesław Miłosz and the Polish School of Poetry in the USA.


Title: The Persona of Czesław Miłosz
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246 pages