Some individuals grow in significance as they recede in time. The veneration that is evident in virtually every account of Czesław Miłosz testifies to this phenomenon, so much so that writing about his portrait has been daunting.
The idea to make the portrait was born when I attended a reading at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1982. The room was packed and worshipful. Virtually all of his writing was in Polish, which most in the audience, including myself, would never know except in translation. First, he read in his native tongue, then in English. I recall sensing the paradox of a soft melodious voice that could create a feeling of great closeness while preserving a palpable distance. I knew some of his poetry and a number of his essays and recognised the unmistakable rhythm of his language. Robert Hass, his principle collaborator and translator, has described his ‘fierce, hawkish, standoffish formality’. Even allowing for the animated eyes and mischievous smile, he seemed the incarnation of gravity and dignity. His large, wide face, with its strong planes, forceful jaw, and unforgettable brows, recalled a medieval wood carved saint.
No doubt it was the legend that shaped my initial impressions. His book, The Captive Mind
, published in the early 1950s in Paris after his defection from Stalinist Poland, revealed the psychology and destiny of intellectuals complicit with the regime. Bells in Winter
was my first encounter with his poetry, in which I learned of his concern for philosophical and spiritual matters that went far beyond politics. Yet it was his destiny to wrestle with his beliefs,