by Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by the author and Robert Hass
Ecco. 102 pp. $23.95
Second Space is the final collection of poems by the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who died last August at the age of 93. A short book, it nevertheless finds room for all of Milosz’s most important concerns and demonstrates the full range of his genius. Many of the poems collected here have a decidedly valedictory tone: they are not only poems written in old age—Milosz had been writing those for decades—but poems written at the end of life, about the end of life and whatever would follow it.
Like many poets of his time, Milosz often seemed to have more religious desire than faith, and more religious anxiety than desire. What made him slightly unusual was that he was never complacent about this. He admired and envied those who seemed to have greater faith, and among his intellectual and artistic heroes were many saints and mystics. He often took the part of Job, and sometimes took it further than Job did, honorably refusing what he regarded as theological evasions of the problem of suffering. But finally he had more in common with the man in the gospel who begs Christ for faith—“Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Milosz uses a very similar formulation more than once in Second Space. In “Treatise on Theology” he confesses, “One day I believe, another I disbelieve,” while in the long poem “Father Severinus,” a doubting priest describes the people of his parish in the same way:
To tell the truth, they believe and disbelieve.
They go to church lest someone think they are godless.
During the sermon they think of Julia’s tits, of an elephant,
Of the price of butter, and of New Guinea.
He dared to think they might be like that
That night when He knelt in the Garden of Olives
And felt on His back the cold sweat of dread.
Milosz dared to think that he was like that too, and he sometimes dared to worry that it could have been otherwise: Could he have believed more, disbelieved less, if he had not been so proud? Had he allowed his literary ambition to keep him from the pursuit of sanctity? There is no clear answer to these questions in the poems. Or rather, there are several provisional and contradictory answers. Certainly, the poet was never bashful about his theological reservations—about his deep attraction to Gnosticism and his equally deep aversion to certain forms of scholasticism in which mystery seemed less the veil of divinity than a euphemism for unsolved problems. Milosz’s description of such scholasticism could be uncharacteristically careless, but it did highlight his more considered disdain for those who held themselves above religious doubt. If, as he believed, it was dangerous to make a boast of one’s doubts, it was still more dangerous to boast of one’s certainty, as if it were a proof of personal virtue or the natural consequence of a well-maintained theological system.
Like his Father Severinus, Milosz remained dissatisfied with conventional theodicy:
It’s beyond my understanding.
How could you create such a world,
Alien to the human heart, pitiless,
In which monsters copulate, and death
Is the numb guardian of time.
But unlike many of his contemporaries (and too many of his disciples), Milosz did not treat this dissatisfaction as a license to dismiss the claims of Christianity. He would have agreed with those dry scholastics that beauty is the splendor of being, and he would have added that sanctity is the splendor of faith. It was examples of sanctity more than arguments that drew him back to the Church whenever his metaphysical worries or his work pulled him away from it. So it is with Father Severinus: just when he fears that he has lost his faith and that “the torture inflicted on the Son of Man on the cross / Occurred so that the world could show its indifference,” he thinks of a dying friend:
The incurable illness of Theophilus.
Too zealous in his piety.
In his prayers God’s mercy,
His care and love, renews itself.
I, watching the cruelty of his fate
Or perhaps of a preordained destiny,
Suffer. And I am deliberately hypocritical,
For I want to save him from the loss of faith,
To save all people like him. Out of pity for them
Let us sing psalms, play music to Jehovah.
From our hearts let the walls of a powerful fortress
Rise around their believing hearts.
I cannot grasp why, and whence comes
My identity with them, perhaps divine?
Milosz was not an optimist. Yet he has been fairly described by both his religious and his secular admirers as a poet of hope. This may appear as a contradiction, but for him it was a kind of tautology. He believed that the natural tendency of history, like that of nature itself, is toward cruelty and dissolution. Accordingly, the human experience of history not only permits us to expect the worst but requires us to. That is precisely why there is room, and need, for hope. After all, if we could simply expect the best—or even a steady drift toward the better—then hope would be unnecessary and perhaps meaningless. Happily, our experience also provides us with consolations that are larger than what we can reasonably expect, larger even than history; and it is these consolations—instances of beauty and goodness—which invite us to hope. For Milosz, hope was not a disposition but a virtue, and a difficult one. In this sense at least, he was a deeply Christian poet.
But if it is fair to call Milosz a poet of hope, it is truer to call him a poet of memory; in our time, he was perhaps the poet of memory. In Second Space Milosz examines the act of remembering under several of its aspects. It is, to begin with, a marvel and a blessing. At the end of his life, as he began to lose his vision and hearing, Milosz’s sharp memory seemed to grow even sharper. “And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas / assigned to my brush came closer, / ready now to be described better than they were before.” Finally the excitements and distractions of youth fell away as he retired from the “fairgrounds of the world.” He turned his gaze inward to reexamine all the images he had collected in the course of a long and varied life. And then he turned again, to consider the source of the one light that seemed to illuminate each of those images. “Without eyes, my gaze is fixed on one bright point, / That grows large and takes me in.”
Memory was a mixed blessing, however, since it was also what burdened consciousness with a load of useless pain. The pains of the moment at least helped one to survive. But the old pains lodged in the mind were good for nothing: they became stagnant and septic. It was precisely this burden of memory that made it so difficult to hope; and the better one’s memory, the harder it became. Milosz had seen a lot of ugliness—terrible violence in Poland during the Second World War, cowardice and mendacity in France after it—and he sometimes wished he could remember less. His famous strength of mind was also a serious vulnerability. “Such, simply, was my genetic inadaptation. // Here on earth every prick of a rose-thorn changed into a wound.”
When Milosz was able to hope at all, he hoped his wounds would not be worthless. That is, he hoped that the Christian story was true and that the prospect of redemption was more than a useful self-deception. In Second Space he describes memory sometimes as a gift, more often as a wound, but always as a duty. The poet’s job is to remember and record as much as he can, whether to celebrate or to mourn. “And no water / Could wash away what was branded in our memories. / And something had to be done with it. / Something had to be done.” In a beautiful elegy titled “On Old Women,” the poet uses a similar rhetorical repetition to fold the exercise of memory into the virtue of patience: “It had to be suffered, endured, managed. / One had to wait and not wait, one had to.”
Milosz called himself a “chaplain of shadows.” Again and again in this last book, he seeks to retrieve the stories of the forgotten dead, commemorating their mostly modest triumphs and protesting their disappearance. With W. H. Auden, Milosz believed that a poet’s first responsibility is to praise “what there is for being,” but, for him, this also meant praising what there was for having been, even if it meant exposing old wounds. As it usually did.
To praise. Only this has been left
To the one who ponders, slowly,
Misfortune upon misfortune and from which side they struck.
Matthew Boudway is Managing Editor of First Things.