April 25th, 2017

Michael Parker is Visiting Professor in English Literature, Oxford Brookes University, and a writer and lecturer. With Aleksandra Parker, he is co-editor and translator of Milosz: A Biography.


Michael Parker

One of Czeslaw Milosz’s most remarkable, enduring poems, ‘The World: A Naïve Poem’, was written 1943, when the poet was in his early thirties. It evokes a time and place that at first seems prelapsarian, yet beneath its surface pastoral ‘glints’ with ‘many other tones’ (Hass 185). Its first appearance, Seamus Heaney reminds us, was as one of a cluster of clandestine publications from ‘a hand-press in Warsaw’ in the fourth year of the Nazis’ occupation of the city when ‘concentration-camps were opening like hell-mouths all over Europe’ (‘Secular and Millennial Milosz’ 412). Despite the beguiling simplicity of its form and style – all but three of the twenty poems in the entire sequence are written in quatrains, rhyming abab cdcd efef in the original Polish – ‘The World’ delves into core concerns he will address throughout his literary career, and like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, with which it is regularly compared, invites, indeed expects its readers to read between the lines.

From the outset, what strikes one is the extraordinary deftness and immediacy with which Milosz conveys a child’s-eye perspective, and traces stages in children’s initiation into a world, which by turns appears exciting, engrossing, promising, frightening. Like the brother and sister in the sequence, as readers we encounter sudden shifts in perspective from long-shots to close-ups, switches to and from exteriors to interiors. Unlike the child protagonists, we have the capacity to grasp the underlying connections and patterns being made.

Fittingly, Miłosz’s journey back into childhood opens with ‘The Road’, which denotes not only the physical track the children follow on their route home from school, but also the metaphorical learning-curve upon which they are embarked:

         There where you see a green valley 
And a road half-covered with grass, 
Through an oak wood beginning to bloom 
Children are returning home from school. 
In a pencil case that opens sideways 
Crayons rattle among crumbs of a roll 
And a copper penny saved by every child 
To greet the first spring cuckoo. 

Sister's beret and brother's cap 
Bob in the bushy underbrush, 
A screeching jay hops in the branches 
And long clouds float over the trees

A red roof is already visible at the bend. 
In front of the house father, leaning on a hoe, 
Bows down, touches the unfolded leaves, 
And from his flower bed inspects the whole region.


Mentions of ‘a green valley’, ‘an oak wood’, ‘the first spring cuckoo’, ‘a screeching jay’, underline how integral a part nature plays in their education. Then, in what a film-maker might term ‘a hard cut’, stanza two takes us inside ‘a pencil case, that opens sideways’, where ‘Crayons rattle among crumbs of a roll’. Pencil and crayons, words and pictures, are the very means by which the children enter into and extend their dialogue with the world. In contrast to the school children who are glimpsed first in aerial shot, bobbing through the underbrush, their father appears in long shot, resting in his labour, inspecting growth in the flower bed, before lifting his eyes to take in ‘the whole region’ (NCP 36). 

Where the imagery of ‘The Road’ tends towards continuities ahead (‘green’, ‘bloom’, ‘beginning’, ‘spring’, ‘unfolded leaves’), a close-up at the end of the next poem, ‘The Gate’, directs the focus towards the past, and a wooden handle, 'worn smooth over time, / Polished by the touch of many hands' (NCP 37). Ideas of ancestry and inheritance prompt widely different reactions in Miłosz, as Franaszek’s biography reveals, and while quotidian objects linked to family history like this can serve as a means to stabilize the self, they equally issue a reminder of that self’s impermanence.

An immediate contrast in scale is again established in poem three, The Porch’, in which the reader is conducted inside the house, its ‘large windows’ offering an extensive vista from which

        you can see north, south, east and west,

Forests and rivers, fields and tree-lined lanes (NCP 38). 


These lines illustrate perfectly what Helen Vendler refers to as Milosz’s ‘strict reining-in of language’ throughout the sequence, which involves him insistently returning to a ‘small precious store of words’, including several which we have already encountered: ‘green’, ‘valley’, ‘grass’, ‘oak’, ‘wood’, ‘trees’, ‘flower’, ‘forests’, ‘rivers’, ‘fields’, ‘leaves’, ‘brother’ ‘sister’, ‘father’ (‘Understanding “The World”’ 131). As in the opening poem, the speaker re-directs his gaze away from wide stretches of verdant landscape to a little human cameo. On ‘a tiny table’, two children are earnestly drawing pictures reflecting a world they have learnt of, yet fortunately not witnessed themselves. Typically, Milosz hits on a perfect image to capture their concentration as they sketch ‘scenes of battle and pursuit’, and

                        with their pink tongues try to help

            Great warships, one of which is sinking (NCP 38).


Lines like these demonstrate Milosz’s fine ear when it comes to aural effects. Along with the recurrent consonants (‘w’, ‘p’, ‘k’, ‘t’, ‘g’) and repeated 'ɪ' vowel (in ‘pink’, ‘-ships’, ‘is’, ‘which’, ‘sinking’), he introduces neat changes in rhythm, switching between weak ‘skipping’ stresses in ‘with their’, ‘try to’, ‘one of’ and the strong stresses in ‘pink tongues’ and ‘Great warships’. 

            In ‘The Dining Room’ one of the principal features is a silent ‘Danzig clock’. Coming so soon after the naval references, it seems certain that Miłosz expects his contemporaneous audience to pick up the allusion to the place where the first action of the Second World War began, when German forces on board the battleship Schleswig Holstein shelled a small Polish garrison stationed at the Free City’s Westerplatte harbour. A more obvious sign of the dark presences that instil fear and threaten innocence feature in this and the poem that succeeds it. Beside a Breughel print depicting ‘crows in an overcast sky’, ‘sculpted heads of two smiling devils’ stare down from an adjoining wall. Far more terrifying, as Miłosz’s personification accentuates, is what confronts them on ‘The Stairs’, a boar’s head that comes


                        …alive, enormous in shadow.

At first, just the tusks, then as it grows

The snout roams the ceiling, sniffing the stairway vault (NCP 40).


For the first time, the reader no longer occupies the role of wiser observer, and is compelled to view events with a child’s eyes, as the mother’s shadow climbs to confront the boar’s, before tussling, solitarily, ‘with the wild beast’.

Illustrated books and distant views dominate in the next five lyrics, broadening the boy and girl’s consciousness of the world’s complexity, its magic, multiplicity, and malignity. Nowhere is the chill, penetrating irony later associated with Eastern European parable poetry more pronounced than in ‘Pictures’, which begins innocently enough with a moth flitting unsteadily above a picture-book in which a chariot is hurtling along, raising dust.


      The book is open. A moth with its shaky flight

           Flits over a chariot that speeds through the dust.

           Touched, it falls down pouring a golden spray

           On a Greek army storming a city.


           Behind a speeding chariot they drag a hero.

           His head bumps against stone slabs.

           While the moth, pinned to the page by the slap of a hand,

           Flutters and dies on the hero’s body.


           And here, the sky gets cloudy, thunder resounds,

           Ships clear the rocks for the open sea.

           On the shore oxen lower  their yoked necks

           And a naked man ploughs the field.


Miłosz’s reference on line four to the assault on Troy provides a context for the speeding chariot, though only at the start of the second stanza does it emerge that the specific image the child is poring over is one of the grisliest in Homer, a ‘shameful outrage’ (The Iliad 407) when Achilles circles Troy three times in his chariot, dragging Hector’s dead body behind him. Clearly the atrocities committed before Troy are analogous to those being perpetuated throughout Nazi-occupied continent. Startlingly, these war crimes, mythic and actual, are juxtaposed with an instance of violence on a different scale. Although the poem’s speaker records what happened, no indication is given as to whether this was an involuntary or a conscious, willed act on the part of the child. Moral judgment on what has occurred is withheld, leaving it to the reader to ponder what its meaning might be. The heavens in the final quatrain provide no pointers - ‘the sky gets cloudy, thunder resounds’ -  while below ships sail on, and a ploughman persists in his labours, as detached perhaps as their counterparts in W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’.

            As the sequence’s midway point approaches, the figure who repeatedly occupies centre frame is the children’s father, portrayed as mysterious, powerful, but somewhat distant, at others an authoritative, accessible guide who opens up the world to them. At times, father is invested with a brilliance, with attention directed to his ‘high forehead’, ‘the ray of sun’ that crowns him, and his gown which resembles a wizard’s. Above all, he is seen as the owner of ‘the book’. What seals his status as one of the Chosen comes when the over-awed child explains how

            Only he whom God instructs in magic

            Will learn what wonders are hidden in this book (NCP 42). 


Bright, surprising imagery, fine musical effects, lively rhythms combine in ‘From the Window’ and ‘Father Explains’ to convey the sheer intensity of the father’s love of Europe’s diverse landscapes and city sights, and eagerness to pass on that rapture to the next generation.


            Beyond a field, a wood and a second field,

            The expanse of water, a white mirror, glitters.

            And the golden lowland of the earth,

            Bathes in the sea, a half-sunken tulip.


            Father tells us this is Europe.

            On sunny days you can see it all clearly.

            Now it is smoking after many floods,

            A home for people, dogs, cats and horses.


            The bright towers of cities shine there,

            Streams intertwine their silver threads,

            And the moons of mountains are visible in spots

            Something like goose feathers scattered on the ground.


In both poems, he manages to make the places seem just within reach. Words associated with light (‘white’, ‘glitters’, ‘sunny’, ‘bright’, ‘shine’, ‘moons’) and precious metals (‘golden’, ‘silver’) recur in the first poem, alongside images from weaving (‘intertwine’, ‘threads’) that emphasise Europe’s interconnectedness, and ignore borders and national divisions. Five of the six stanzas of ‘Father Explains’ locates a particular city (Warsaw, Prague, Rome, Paris) or larger entity (The Alps, Italy), and highlights natural or man-made features associated with them. Thoughtfully, so that his young listeners feel more at ease with these distant places and expanses, Father slips in allusions linked to home; thus, for example, the snow-covered peaks become ‘like goose feathers scattered on the ground’ (‘From the Window’), Italy resembles ‘a deep-blue dish’, and Paris ‘reins in its herd of bridges’ (Father Explains’).

Neither his original or later, informed, post-Nobel readers can miss the ironies in these evocations of a peaceful, beautiful Europe, whose imagined capitals face only the threat from ‘strings of rain’ or ‘a bluish mist’