The recent death of Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney felt like a seismic cultural loss, reflected in the heartfelt tributes that subsequently have poured out across print, digital and social media. It sent me back to his poetry and prose, where among many gems I discovered a 1999 essay about another one of my literary heroes, Czeslaw Milosz (I wrote about a Milosz essay titled “Happiness” here). This proved to be a fascinating intersection. Heaney’s “Secular and Millennial Milosz” (found in Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001) examined his fellow Nobel Prize winner, a Lithuanian-Polish poet and writer who lived through the tumultuous decades of the twentieth century. Milosz, Heaney observes, was a student in Paris in the twenties, a “member of the literary avant-garde” in the thirties, part of the Polish Resistance in the forties, a defector and émigré in the fifties, a “Solomon among the flower children” at Berkeley in the sixties, “world visionary” in the seventies, a “moral and political force” for Poland in the 80s, and “a marvel of continuing imaginative value” in the 90s. Heaney notes that Milosz spanned the chronology of a century but the culture of a millennium:
“Born a Catholic in the forest lands of Lithuania, he grew up in a culture that still remembered dark-age folk-beliefs and the shimmering systems of medieval scholasticism and Renaissance neo-Platonism. His experience of the ideological and military crises induced by Marxism and Fascism towards the middle of the century could stand for the mid-millennial crisis of the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, just as his flight from ideological extremes into a more Voltairean cast of mind in the 1950s could represent the period of the Enlightenment. Romanticism followed, a total embrace of poetry and a trust in his ‘prophetic soul,’ so that he has ended up on a hill above San Francisco Bay, a sage on the mountain, maintaining the gravity of being even as he inhales the increasingly weightless, late-capitalist, post-modern air of California.”
The intersection of life and work is central to Heaney’s reflection on Milosz, who achieves “a magnificent balance” between reality and pleasure in his poetry: “Milosz dwells in the middle, at times tragically, at times deliciously, for he will renege neither on his glimpses of heaven upon earth nor on his knowledge that the world is a vale of tears.” As the Eastern Europe of Milosz’s youth (“land of Arcadia”) was transformed into a “land of nightmare,” Milosz refused the options of either Pollyannish denial or nihilistic despair. Heaney depicts Milosz the poet and writer of prose like The Captive Mind as concerned with the moral and spiritual components of “individual responsibility,” which was not negated by the surrounding pervasive relativism and destabilizing assumptions about the self. What informed Milosz’s assumptions? Heaney elaborates:
Much is at stake from beginning to end in Milosz’s poetry. After all, the tradition of Christian humanism–the tradition he was born into and that had such a formative effect upon his sensibility–was under assault from the moment he came to consciousness. His imagination is supplied and made ample by a fundamentally religious vision, the one based on the idea of the Incarnation. What this entails is an assent to the stark, astonishing proposition that through the incarnation of the Son of God in the figure of Christ, the eternal has intersected with time, and through that intersection human beings, though creatures of time, have access to a reality out of time. This is the vision, after all, that gave us much that is glorious in western architecture and art–Chartres Cathedral and The Divine Comedy, The Book of Kells and Paradise Lost, Gregorian Chant and the Sistine Chapel,–and it still inspires this poet to occasionally symphonic utterance.
Milosz had a complex relationship with his religious faith, but his immersion in Christian humanism informed his understanding of the poet’s role in creating “variations upon ancient themes” in a world in which rapid scientific, technological and military transformation had profound implications for human flourishing. Indeed, as Heaney writes: “The figure of the poet as somebody on a secret errand, with ancient and vital truths in his keeping, appeals to him. Cultural memory, Milosz’s work implies, is necessary for human dignity and survival.”
It’s a profound insight about the importance of collective memory (and one a million miles from Henry Ford’s quip, “I don’t read history. That’s in the past. I’m thinking about the future”). Milosz’s secret errand, in fact, makes me think I should assign more poetry in my history classes. Historical consciousness, after all, means more than an accumulation of historical data. It is rather, as Wilfred McClay succinctly phrased it, “learning to appropriate into our own moral imagination, and learning to be guided by, the distilled memories of others, the stories of things we never experienced firsthand.”
The historical consciousness that informs Milosz’s work could also be said to be evident in Heaney’s writing. He too was on a secret errand to preserve cultural memory and human dignity in a body of work that included translations of ancient texts, prose of power and persuasion, and poetry that referenced the land, political complexities and religious strife of his native Ireland while remaining attuned to the beauty around him. His praise of Milosz reminds us of where Heaney himself found power in poetry. The closing words of Heaney’s Nobel lecture (and of this post) speak to the dignity and values to be claimed amidst the “vale of tears”:
The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.
Photo: Anne Burgess, Poets’ Chair, Rathlin Island, Ireland. “The inscription on the front of the chair is a poem by Seamus Heaney which includes the line, “When you sat … in the basalt throne”, an entirely appropriate verse for Rathlin, which is mostly covered in basalt, though it originally refers to the Giant’s Causeway. What a pity that the chair is made of granite, which does not occur on Rathlin! On the back of the chair is a list of artists and poets who have visited Rathlin, with room for many more.” (CC BY-SA 2.0)