Volume 22, No.2 - Summer 1976
Editors of this issue: Bronius Vaðkelis
Copyright © 1976 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Muhlenberg College

The long research done for the preparation of entries on Oscar Vladislas Milosz (1877-1939) in the forthcoming Critical Bibliography of French Literature — 20th Century, scheduled to appear in early 1976, gives this author a comprehensive outlook on the state of scholarly studies on the great French poet of Lithuanian origin. It is hoped that the following might serve as an initial guide for anyone contemplating to undertake a specialized study of Milosz's works, thought or life.

Biographical note

Oscar Vladislas Milosz's father, the count Vladislas Lubicz-Milosz whose noble ancestry has been traced to 1199, and his mother, the daughter of a rabbi and Hebrew scholar, Marie Rosalie Rosenthal, brought their son to France from his native Czereia at the age of twelve. While at the Lycée Janson, Oscar Vladislas became interested in poetry. He read Baudelaire, Rimbaud and especially Mallarmé whom he admired and with whom he felt special affinity, reflected in Milosz's own early poetry. He continued writing poetry while pursuing formal studies in ancient languages and literatures and traveling extensively through Europe and North Africa between 1906 and 1914. During World War I, he defended Lithuania's quest for independence by writing journalistic articles and pamphlets. After the war he became a member of the Lithuanian Legation in Paris and made several trips to Lithuania.

Although he was raised nominally a Catholic, Milosz's religious education was haphazard during his childhood and youth. He was converted through an illumination experienced on the night of December 14, 1914, but he had been drawn towards religion before that date and afterwards continued to evolve steadily towards a higher degree of mysticism. Turning away progressively from purely literary genres and devoting his efforts increasingly to the exegesis of the Bible and ethnographic studies, he ceased writing poetry about 1927.

Milosz's entire work was written in French. Nearly all of it falls into one of four categories, with some overlapping: (1) poetry, (2) drama, (3) biblical exegesis or philosophy and (4) adaptations of Lithuanian folklore. Significantly, each of these categories has attracted a different set of scholars. Even the studies dealing with Milosz's entire life and works show a slant or emphasis on one of these aspects, determined by the scholar's particular interest. The few works which do not fit into one of the above categories have received but scant attention, if any. These are chiefly translations of Goethe, Dante and other poets of such stature, as well as several historical - political pamphlets Milosz wrote while with the Lithuanian Legation in Paris to further Lithuania's political interests1 and a considerable number of articles on various aspects of Lithuania he published from 1919 to 1937 in such periodicals as La Revue baltique, La Revue slave, Revue parlementaire, Revue de France, Mercure de France and others.2

There are a number of good general introductions to Milosz's life and works: by Jacques Buge (Milosz en quête du divin, Paris: Nizet, 1963), by Armand Godoy, by André Lebois, by Anne Richter and particularly that by Geneviève-Irène Zidonis. There are also anthologies of Milosz's poetry and excerpts from some of his other works with introductions, by Jacques Buge (Paris: A. Silvaire, 1965) and Jean Rousselot (Paris: Seghers, [1949]).


By far the most thoroughly studied aspect of Milosz's work is his poetry, and in the world of French letters he is known almost exclusively as a post-symbolist poet as well as the author of a particularly moving and original Don Juan, a poetic drama. His poetry has received French critics' attention from the beginning (1900), after the publication of his first volume of poems.3 Such personal and devoted friends who were also literary critics, as Francis Miomandre4 helped establish Milosz's reputation as a poet. Milosz himself was extremely introverted and took no action to publicize his creative efforts, quite the contrary.5

Aside from the small group of friends initiated to his poetry, several of whom sensed his power and greatness, even hailing him as the French Goethe, the literary public of France did not recognize Milosz's poetic works to any significant extent.6 Until his death Milosz remained the poet of a "happy few," to use Stendhal's expression. He realized it, and like Stendhal, thought that recognition would come much later when his visionary insights would be partially fulfilled and thus understood by the public.

Indeed, his work as a whole and his poetry in particular has begun to be appreciated and understood, if partially, only in the 1960-ies. Since then, Milosz's poetry has been the object of several in-depth articles. By far the most thorough and scholarly exegete of Milosz's poetry is Jean Bellemin-Noël, author of the detailed Le Texte et l'avant-texte: les brouillons d'un poème de Milosz (Paris: Larousse, 1972), 143 p. in which he analyzes the successive stages of the creation of the poem "La Charrette."7 The thematics and sources of Milosz's poetry have received notable attention, but there are other aspects which deserve study, such as musicality and imagery. Milosz's poetic« works need also to be studied more completely in the context of his entire work, taking into account the evolution of his thought in the social as well as the spiritual context. This presupposes the critic's thorough familiarity not only with Milosz's life and works but with modern European history, twentieth century French cultural history, Catholic theology, Judaism and the Bible.


Perhaps more than for his poetry, today Milosz is known for his version of the Don Juan legend, Miguel Mañara (1912), particularly interesting and unique in that the hero repents at the end from his evildoing and seeks God. Miguel Mañara must be considered together with Milosz's only novel, L'Amoureuse Initiation (1910), which, despite its purposely misleading eighteenth century setting, is autobiographical. The hero of the novel realizes at the end of his adventurous life how empty it has been.

There has been a general interest in the Don Juan theme in French criticism since World War I, intensifying since World War II, so much so that Molière's Dom Juan, seldom played before the 1850's, is now considered by some critics his greatest masterpiece or at least his most significant play. Likewise, the works of the Marquis de Sade and Choderlos de Laclos (Les Liaisons dangereuses), which depict the perversion of human feelings with the purpose of hurting others in order to derive pleasure, have had a vogue in twentieth-century criticism. This fact alone explains why Milosz's Miguel Mañara has become his best known work. Short studies on Miguel Mañara are included in nearly all general works on Milosz.

However, Milosz himself did not particularly single it out as more important than his other works, nor is there any reason, other than literary fashion, for doing so. Miguel Mañara is but the first part of a trilogy. The second play is Méphiboseth (1913) and the third Saül de Tarse (written 1914, publ. 1970). The theme of the second play is spiritual ascension, which has not stirred any significant interest in twentieth-century criticism. The last part was not published until 1970 in the last volume of Milosz's complete works edited by André Silvaire. While Milosz was composing it in 1914, his thought was rapidly evolving toward almost exclusively spiritual preoccupations, toward pure mysticism, culminating in the pascalian illumination on the night of December 14 of that year. Although Milosz had already submitted Saül de Tarse to an editor,8 it was not published then and remained in manuscript form until it was sent to Silvaire just before the last volume of Milosz's complete works went to press. It reflects his state of mind when he wrote it as well as his earlier conception of a triptych of plays which was to be a symbolic spiritual itinerary of man, representing Milosz's own spiritual trajectory. Given the recent date of accessibility to this interesting major work, Saül de Tarse invites scholarly and critical appraisal in three areas: as a single entity, as part of a dramatic trilogy and as critical point in the evolution of Milosz's thought.

Biblical exegesis

By far the strangest, most fascinating and most inaccessible of Milosz's writings are those he labored on during the 1920's and especially the 1930's, during the increasingly spiritual part of his life when he became more and more of a recluse and moved from Paris to Fontainebleau to enjoy the company of the birds he tamed in preference to humans.9

From 1931 until his death in 1939 he wrote and published Les Origines ibériques du peuple juit, L'Apocalypse de Saint - Jean déchiffrée and Les Origines de la nation lithuanienne, all based on studies of the Bible; and his last poem, "Psaume de l'étoile du matin." He was convinced that humanity was headed for a great catastrophe and that the key to Wisdom was the Bible on which he spent more and more of his time. He claimed that Truth had been revealed to him through the Apocalypse of St. John. He foresaw a great cataclysm for 1944 but also knew he would not be witnessing it.

Among his most unorthodox theories are The Iberic Origins of the Jewish People and The Origins of the Lithuanian Nation,10 both based on independent philological studies chiefly of place names he carried on for many years. In these works he links the Jews, the Basques and the Lithuanians to a common proto-nation which settled in Europe prior to the arrival of Indo-European stock. The Basques and a sub-stratum in the Lithuanian nation are to be remnants of these earlier populations; as for the Jews, or rather a sub-stratum of the Jews which inhabited Palestine prior to Jesus' birth, they were to have migrated from the Iberian peninsula to the Near East at some prior time.

Given Milosz's Lithuanian and Jewish origins, it is understandable why his philological research of more than twenty years led him in those particular paths. However, these unique findings have not so far invited scholarly commentary.

Likewise, Milosz's philosophical works — Ars Magna and Les Arcanes have invited little comment. They would be of greater interest to philosophers and theologians than to scholars of literature. Ars Magma, however, has provoked and substantiated the speculations of the French physician Hubert Larcher in his provocative essay Le Sang peut-il vaincre la mort? (Can Blood Conquer Death?) in which he explores, through numerous examples both in recent medical history as well as in historical so-called "miracles" Milosz's theory which maintains that conscience is "fixed" in the blood. In other words, blood is the matter or "place" in which thought or conscience is substantiated and can be transferred outside the being. This particular aspect of Milosz's work would be more interesting to critics with scientific training.

As far-flung as Milosz's thought may seem, it must be remembered that he himself realized that he lived outside of his time — outside of TIME. Whether he was merely a Swedenborgian mystic,11 a kind of "pure spirit" like Séraphita in Balzac's novel of the same title in which the popular novelist conveyed his image of the Swedish mystic's theories, or whether Milosz was a true visionary as he thought he was, may someday be revealed. In any case, some of his more stunning pronouncements seem to deserve a more critical appraisal than the flat dismissal they have met with until now.

What is most significant about Milosz is that he had a total vision of the universe, a Weltanschauung in the most complete sense of the word, which is at the very least an extremely rare gift. His vision transcends time and space. The Bible was but a means, a common key he shared with the rest of humanity for unlocking the mysteries of the universe, with the difference that for him it was a magic tool.

Lithuanian Folklore

Several volumes (VI and IX in the Silvaire edition of Milosz's complete works) are devoted to translations and adaptations of Lithuanian Dainos and folk tales. This aspect of Milosz's work has attracted the attention of literary scholars of Lithuanian origin and has been the subject of several studies, notably that of Geneviève-Irène Zidonis, O. V. de L. Milosz (Paris: Olivier Perrin, 1951) and that of Aldona Slepetys, La Lithuanie dans l'oeuvre de O. V. de Milosz (Diss. New York Univ., 1958). Having translated Lithuanian folklore into a major language, Milosz has opened the possibility for comparative studies to scholars who know French plus another minor language with a rich folkloric tradition. Also, those with a good knowledge of both French and Lithuanian have the possibility of investigating his adaptations from the stylistic point of view. Comparative stylistic studies could also be made of Milosz's translation of Goethe, Dante and the English poets he reinterpreted in French.

Now that at last the entire works of Milosz are published by André Silvaire (Paris, 1945-70), that his supporters regularly publish the latest findings in the Cahiers de l'Association des Amis de Milosz (seven issues published by 1972),12 that many of his correspondences with editors, writers and other artists of his time are also available, scholars finally have at their disposal a complete documentation on the life and works of a great, if neglected, French poet and visionary. Those who have the background and training in the areas represented in Milosz's work now have the means to interpret to a broader public the insights of an extraordinary mind.


1 E. g. L'Emprise allemande sur la Russie depuis de Xlle siècle jusqu'à nos jours (Paris: L'Affranchi, [1919]), 69 p.
2 A complete list of Milosz's articles published in periodicals has been compiled by Stanley Guise and published in 0. V. de L. Milosz (1877-1939) (Paris: A. Silvaire, 1959), pp. 218-222.
3 Milosz's first volume of poems, Le Poème des décadences (Paris: Girard and Villerelle, 1899) was reviewed by Raitif de la Bretonne in his column Pall-Mall Semaine in Journal (Jan. 3, 1900), and contained a laudatory letter by the poet Paul Fort.
4 Miomandre published the first important study of Milosz's poems, "Un Poète de l'évocation: 0. W. Milosz" in Ermitage (1902), followed later by "Essai sur un grand poète français" in his volume Le Pavillon du mandarin (Paris: Emile Paul Frères, 1921).
5 He is known to have completely destroyed at least one of his early works in a fit of depression. It was rescued from oblivion by a devoted friend who reconstituted the scraps of the notebook and kept it, submitting it to Milosz's editor Silvaire almost twenty years after Milosz's death. It was published integrally in 1969 under the title Cahier déchiré (Torn-up Notebook) by Silvaire, and in 1972 in a critical edition by Jean Bellemin-Noël (Paris: Lettres modernes).
6 Even today he is not mentioned in school editions such as the introduction to modern poetry by Henri Lemaître, La Poésie depuis Baudelaire (Paris: Armand Colin, 1965) in the Collection "U" aimed at the university student of letters.
7 Besides Bellemin-Noël's excellent studies employing the latest techniques of investigation, a particularly noteworthy older one is "Milosz et Hölderlin" by André Lebois in Etudes Germaniques 4:345-360 (Oct.-Dec. 1949).
8 Bibliothèque de l'Occident.
9 During his stay in Fontainebleau, Milosz became a sort of legend. His daily bird-feeding strolls in the park earned him the nickname of Monsieur Mangeoire (Mr. Birdfeeder). He inspired such trust that wild birds would alight on his arm and eat out of his palm. He also kept caged birds as pets.
10 My own translations of titles thoughout this paper.
11 Swedenborg's influence on Milosz has been studied by Stanley Guise in "Milosz et Swedenborg," in 0. V. de L. Milosz (Paris: A. Silvaire, 1959), pp. 178-189; and Jean Bellemin-Noël in "Milosz lecteur de Swedenborg," Revue des Sciences Humaines 116:521-562 (Oct.-Dec., 1964).
Milosz also felt a great spiritual kinship with Dante and Goethe, both of whom he translated. All three had a total, transcendental vision of the now and hereafter.
12 No. 7 of the Cahiers (1972) is a special issue on the state of Milosz research entitled "Où en sont les recherches et travaux sur Milosz?"