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Child of Europe -- Czeslaw Milosz

Guest poem sent in by Jenny Lobasz
(Poem #837) Child of Europe

 We, whose lungs fill with the sweetness of day,

 Who in May admire trees flowering,
 Are better than those who perished.

 We, who taste of exotic dishes,
 And enjoy fully the delights of love,
 Are better than those who were buried.

 We, from the fiery furnaces, from behind barbed wires
 On which the winds of endless Autumns howled,
 We, who remember battles where the wounded air roared in paroxysms of pain,
 We, saved by our own cunning and knowledge.

 By sending others to the more exposed positions,
 Urging them loudly to fight on,
 Ourselves withdrawing in certainty of the cause lost.

 Having the choice of our own death and that of a friend,
 We chose his, coldly thinking: let it be done quickly.

 We sealed gas chamber doors, stole bread,
 Knowing the next day would be harder to bear than the day before.

 As befits human beings, we explored good and evil.
 Our malignant wisdom has no like on this planet.

 Accept it as proven that we are better than they,
 The gullible, hot-blooded weaklings, careless with their lives.


 Treasure your legacy of skills, child of Europe,
 Inheritor of gothic cathedrals, of baroque churches,
 Of synagogues filled with the wailing of a wronged people.
 Successor of Descartes, Spinoza, inheritor of the word "honor,"
 posthumous child of Leonidas,
 Treasure the skills acquired in the hour of terror.

 You have a clever mind which sees instantly
 The good and bad of any situation.
 You have an elegant, skeptical mind which enjoys pleasures
 Quite unknown to primitive races.

 Guided by this mind you cannot fail to see
 The soundness of the advice we give you:
 Let the sweetness of day fill your lungs.
 For this we have strict but wise rules.


 There can be no question of force triumphant.
 We live in the age of victorious justice.

 Do not mention force, or you will be accused
 Of upholding fallen doctrines in secret.

 He who has power, has it by historical logic.
 Respectfully bow to that logic.

 Let your lips, proposing a hypothesis,
 Not know about the hand faking the experiment.

 Let your hand, faking the experiment,
 Not know about the lips proposing a hypothesis.

 Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision.

 Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction.


 Grow your tree of falsehood from a small grain of truth.
 Do not follow those who lie in contempt of reality.

 Let your lie be even more logical than the truth itself,
 So the weary travelers may find repose in the lie.

 After the Day of the Lie gather in select circles,
 Shaking with laughter when our real deeds are mentioned.

 Dispensing flattery called: perspicacious thinking.
 Dispensing flattery called: a great talent.

 We, the last who can still draw joy from cynicism.
 We, whose cunning is not unlike despair.

 A new, humorless generation is now arising,
 It takes in deadly earnest all we received with laughter.


 Let your words speak not through their meanings,
 But through them against whom they are used.

 Fashion your weapon from ambiguous words.
 Consign clear words to lexical limbo.

 Judge no words before the clerks have checked
 In their card index by whom they were spoken.

 The voice of passion is better that the voice of reason.
 The passionless cannot change history.


 Love no country: countries soon disappear.
 Love no city: cities are soon rubble.

 Throw away keepsakes, or from your desk
 A choking, poisonous fume will exude.

 Do not love people: people soon perish.
 Or they are wronged and call for your help.

 Do not gaze into the pools of the past.
 Their corroded surface will mirror
 A face different from the one you expected.


 He who invokes history is always secure.
 The dead will not rise to witness against him.

 You can accuse them of any deed you like.
 Their reply will always be silence.

 Their empty faces swim out of the deep dark.
 You can fill them with any features desired.

 Proud of dominion over people long vanished,
 Change the past into your own, better likeness.


 The laughter born of the love of truth
 Is now the laughter of the enemies of the people.

 Gone is the age of satire.  We no longer need mock
 The senile tyrant with false courtly phrases.

 Stern as befits the servants of a cause,
 We will permit ourselves only sycophantic humor.

 Tight-lipped, guided by reasons only,
 Cautiously let us step into the era of the unchained fire.
-- Czeslaw Milosz
My father sent me this poem, writing, "I believe this is one of the most
profound descriptions of the twentieth century that I have read. I think
that it was written in Poland in 1945."  I completely agree.  Milosz has
a gift for infusing his poetry with history and our obligations, as he
says in another poem, "Dedication," "What is a poetry which does not
save/Nations or people?"  His command of imagery is amazing, and I've
found it impossible to read this and not be overwhelmed with the guilt
and cynicism he describes.

For some quick biographical information:

 Czeslaw Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980;
 indeed, he is one of the greatest writers living today. Born in
 Lithuania in 1911, Czeslaw Milosz witnessed the turmoil of early
 twentieth-century Europe. In the thirties, he became a leader of the
 Polish avant-garde poetry movement and during World War II, a member of
 the resistance. The weight of Milosz's poetry arises from his
 remembering that man is inextricably linked to his history. Milosz
 deftly fuses historical and individual elements, making his poetry "a
 kind of higher politics, an unpolitical politics." In the forties,
 Czeslaw Milosz served as diplomat for Poland's communist regime in
 Washington, D.C.; however, in 1951, he defected to Paris where he spent
 the next decade as a freelance writer. He continued to write in Polish
 for the people he could no longer be with -- about lost homelands, the
 search for identity, and political repression. Through his poetry,
 Milosz struggles to understand human nature in its entirety, and he
 teaches that "we must lift ourselves over new thresholds of
 consciousness; that to aim at higher and higher thresholds is our only

 In 1961, Czeslaw Milosz was offered a lectureship in Polish Literature
 at the University of California; soon he became professor of Slavic
 languages and literatures. His published works include: Native Realm,
 The Issa Valley, Czeslaw Milosz: The Collected Poems 1931-1987, The
 Separate Notebooks, Bells in Winter, and A Year of the Hunter, and
 Roadside Dog among others. In January 2001 his book of "memories, dreams
 & reflections," Milosz's ABC'S (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was published.
 In April of 2001, Czeslaw Milosz will publish his book length poem,
 Treatise on Poetry (Ecco Press, HarperCollins - translated by Robert
 Hass). His other forthcoming (2001-2002) works include New & Collected
 Poems, Selected Prose, as well as Legends of Modernity.

        -- [broken link]

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